Today, John McCain is doing something “heroic” or “tough” or “badass,” according to a certain echo chamber of political pundits with short memories. After recently being diagnosed with brain cancer, one of a series of ailments that have plagued McCain over the years, he’s decided that today’s health care vote is so important that he had to fly back to Washington, D.C., to be there, recovery be damned.
I get where this narrative came from. Which is the better story: John McCain, staring out of his hospital window, sees the Trump signal in the night sky, rips out all the hospital tubes and needles, and runs off to Washington wearing nothing but a hospital smock and a love of democracy—or John McCain schleps himself back to D.C. to save the president who called him a loser and pass a bill that will prevent millions from getting the same health care that has saved him dozens of times?
John McCain is no hero—he did a heroic thing 40 years ago in Vietnam, which is worth noting, but his political career, capped off by this cowardly health care vote, is a testament to how one tough act can cover up decades of spineless political chicanery.
Today’s health care vote is a procedural one, but it is important in the Republicans’ long war against President Barack Obama. (You don’t really think this is about health care, do you?) If the Senate can cobble together 50 votes (52 senators are Republican), they will pass a “motion to proceed.” Then they can debate whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act through a vote or to continue to come up with a replacement bill.
There’s one definite “no” already—Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)—and other possible “no” votes from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ark.). So it’s pretty clear that, had McCain stayed in Arizona for his medical treatment and missed the vote, the GOP would have no chance of moving this horrible legislation forward.
There’s a difference between doing a heroic thing and being a hero, and John McCain has blurred that line longer than Robin Thicke after a weekend bender. McCain was a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam; that alone doesn’t make you a hero. What made McCain heroic in that instance was that he could have been released early by the Vietnamese because his father was an admiral in the Navy, and McCain said no. He wouldn’t trade off his dad’s name while his fellow soldiers were still held captive. All credit to him for riding it out with his team, risking his life when he had a way out. Too bad he hasn’t shown the same tendency toward policies facing the American people.
In the 2008 feature article “Make-Believe Maverick,” Rolling Stone breaks down how McCain, then a GOP nominee, had billed himself for years as a tough guy willing to stand up to his own party—but right beneath the covers, you could see he’d slip like a prison snitch the moment the political heat got too hot or, worse, the moment he felt he could make himself the center of attention.
McCain repeatedly voted against civil rights policy and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the ’80s and ’90s. He also supported removing the MLK holiday in his home state of Arizona. (Public Enemy even made a song about it). However, when the political winds changed and MLK evolved from being a radical communist to a cuddly civil rights Pokemon for white American conservatives, McCain was quick to change his tune as well. So much for heroically standing on principle (it’s also worth noting he was running against Obama at the time). McCain employed white supremacist, Confederacy-loving historical revisionist Richard Quinn throughout his campaign for president in 2000.
That’s just a sampling of things that this brave “hero” of the United States has done in his career, but this health care vote is an even more telling example of McCain’s fecklessness in the face of power. As much as he stood up to his tormentors in Vietnam, he seems to have Stockholm syndrome when it comes to his own party. John McCain has been repeatedly trashed by leaders in the Republican Party, only to come crawling back to cape for those same abusers. John McCain isn’t a maverick; he’s Theon from Game of Thrones.
During the heated GOP South Carolina primary in 2000, the George W. Bush campaign spread a rumor that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. McCain got mad, but in the end, he rolled over, supported Bush during the 2000 general election and voted lock-step with the same cabal that kneecapped him.
In the 2008 election, McCain was the GOP nominee and was praised repeatedly for standing up to his own racist supporters. However, he had no problem letting his vice president pick, Sarah Palin, run buck wild with the craziest, most outlandish theories about Obama. After Obama got elected, McCain didn’t have much to say about the rise of racist “Birther” claims in the GOP despite his own constitutionally questionable place of birth.
In 2015, when Donald Trump said that McCain wasn’t a war hero because McCain “got captured” in Vietnam, did the senator become part of the #NeverTrump Movement? When Trump attacked the Khan family and was revealed to be a sexual abuser, did McCain stick to his guns? Nope. McCain claimed that he wouldn’t vote for Trump in 2016, but once the dust settled and Trump came into the Oval Office, McCain went right back to political-lapdog mode. According to the FiveThirtyEight blog, McCain voted with Trump 90.5 percent of the time in the first six months of his presidency.
With that kind of history, it certainly isn’t brave or heroic for John McCain to come back to D.C. to vote for Trump’s bill—it’s expected. McCain has never shown himself capable of standing up for or against anything when there’s a chance he could be in the spotlight, even if it means compromising a position he had on the bill just a few weeks ago.
Heroes are consistent. They face danger, personal hardship and possible public scorn to fight for what’s right and for those who can’t fight for themselves. Martin Luther King Jr., the man McCain couldn’t honor for almost 30 years, is a hero. Jimmy Carter—the former president who was diagnosed with brain cancer, fought it and came back to teach Sunday school and work for Habitat for Humanity—is a hero.
John McCain is none of those things. He works for himself and for what is politically convenient, and after receiving some of the best medical care in America, he is now in Washington, D.C., pushing a vote that will deny that opportunity for millions. McCain is many things: a coddler of racists, a failed military tactician, a momentarily brave former Navy pilot, a political chameleon and an abject hypocrite. A hero is not one of them.