There was a time when I respected John McCain. After all, he was a patriot — a hero who had endured torture in the service of his country. But now, with his vote to set in motion a process that will cause millions of Americans to lose their health care, McCain has betrayed the most vulnerable among us, and he has done so in spectacular fashion.
McCain, who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, had a tumor removed at the Mayo Clinic, thanks to the taxpayers who provide his salary and pay for the health-care benefits he receives as a U.S. senator. Just 11 days after that surgery, McCain traveled from Arizona to Washington to snatch health care from the very people whose taxes saved his life.
It is an irony too thick to fully describe with mere words, and a betrayal that will echo through time.
With every Democratic senator voting against the procedural measure that will allow GOP health-care legislation to move forward, McCain, whose medical condition should make him appreciate the importance of health insurance, voted with his fellow Republicans on Tuesday. His vote brought the measure to a tie, which was subsequently broken by Vice President Mike Pence.
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Because of McCain’s vote, at least 22 million Americans could lose their health insurance over the next decade, according the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s score of the last iteration of the GOP’s health-care legislation.
That’s what makes the vote unforgivable.
President Trump, who has loomed large in the effort to erase the legacy of his predecessor, said he was “very, very pleased” with the vote to begin the process of snatching health care from tens of millions of Americans.
But it wasn’t the president’s statement that struck me as odd. It was McCain’s.
Speaking from the Senate floor, McCain was recognized by Pence, who was presiding over the session as Senate president.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” McCain began. “I’ve stood in this place many times and addressed as president many presiding officers. I’ve been so addressed when I’ve sat in that chair, as close as I'll ever be to a presidency.”
McCain’s face creased in a wry smile, and there was a smattering of laughter from McCain’s Senate colleagues, who no doubt remember that McCain, as the Republican presidential nominee, lost a bruising 2008 race to a junior senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.
With the angry, red welt of his surgical scar still visible over his swollen left eye, McCain went on to speak about his service to the Senate and his love for the country. But his words about the presidency kept coming back to me.
“ … as close as I'll ever be to a presidency,” he’d said.
And questions began to spring up in my mind.
Could the bitter pill of losing the presidency to a young black senator be enough to make a gravely ill McCain leave his hospital bed and travel across the country? Could McCain be so intent on erasing the legacy of the man who beat him that he would cast a vote that could result in millions losing health care? Could McCain be quietly seething beneath his calm exterior? Could this vote, at its core, be about revenge?
I don’t claim to know to know the answers to those questions. But I do know that the mere mention of Obama – the first black president of the United States – is enough to whip McCain’s Republican colleagues and many of their white conservative voters into a frenzy.
That’s why Republicans spent nearly seven years referring to Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement as Obamacare. Tying Obama’s name to the legislation reminded their base of voters that this new health-care legislation had been shepherded through by a black man. It reminded GOP voters that the complexion of the White House had changed. It reminded them to be angry, and it worked.
Even if pre-existing conditions could no longer be held against them, and millennials could stay on their parents’ insurance until they were 26, and insurance companies couldn’t gouge seniors or discriminate against women, GOP voters were supposed to be livid. They were supposed to be against anything attached to Obama. And they were. In essence, they still are.
Now, in the age of Trump, millions of Americans are frothing at the mouth, willing to support the GOP’s push to dismantle Obama’s health-care plan, even if they’re hurt by the effort. As long as the legacy of the nation’s first black president is erased, they are pleased.
Sadly, John McCain – a man who should understand the importance of good health care – has joined in that effort.
He said he did so in an effort to help shape the history of our country. But if McCain loves this country as much as he claims, he'll look back at this history and be ashamed.
Solomon Jones is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News: firstname.lastname@example.org.