On Tuesday afternoon, ailing Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who returned to the Senate to vote on the latest defense authorization bill and to vote on the motion to proceed with some form of Obamacare alteration, launched into a barnburner speech on the nature of politics in the Senate. He began by praising the typical behavior of the Senate:
Our responsibilities are important, vitally important, to the continued success of our Republic. And our arcane rules and customs are deliberately intended to require broad cooperation to function well at all. The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems and to defend her from her adversaries.
He then called for bipartisanship, ripping into the functioning of the current Senate:
[Our deliberations] are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember. Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately. And right now they aren’t producing much for the American people.
McCain suggested that the process of legislation isn’t a partisan affair marked by major moves on each side — it’s more of a muddle, an incremental attempt to “chip away at problems and keep our enemies from doing their worst.” He added:
Our system doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives an order to our individual strivings that has helped make ours the most powerful and prosperous society on earth. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than "winning." Even when we must give a little to get a little. Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to "triumph."… Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood. Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order. … The Obama administration and congressional Democrats shouldn’t have forced through Congress without any opposition support a social and economic change as massive as Obamacare. And we shouldn’t do the same with ours.
The Left was angered by McCain’s speech because it followed his decision to vote for a motion to proceed; they were puzzled that McCain would critique the workings of the process, then vote to proceed to debate. That’s silly, since regular order would include a debate, and then a vote on the underlying bill.
The Right was angered because McCain apparently said he wouldn’t vote for a clean repeal bill. That’s more understandable, since McCain taking a stand on regular order at the cost of alterations to Obamacare seems counterproductive.
In reality, McCain speaks from a tradition that is long dead: Senatorial collegiality. But that collegiality hasn’t existed for a long time, as McCain noted: Obama rammed through Obamacare in the dead of night by twisting the process and cutting Republicans out. It would be madness for Republicans to attempt regular order with a Democratic Party that refuses to work, and then uses inaction as a campaign ploy to regain power — a position from which they will again attempt to destroy regular order. Unless some tenuous version of Senatorial mutually-assured destruction takes place, the Senate rules will be twisted and turned to the purposes of whichever party is in power.
In fact, they were even when McCain was at his bipartisan best. The only reason McCain formed the so-called “Gang of 14” in 2005 was because Democrats threatened to filibuster Republican judicial nominees — a longtime no-no in the Senate. In 2010, when Democrats controlled the Senate, McCain proposed another “Gang of 14” to forestall Obamacare — and Democrats refused him outright. This is the problem with McCain’s viewpoint: return to regular order makes perfect sense in a vacuum, but it is unilateral disarmament when facing an unprincipled Democratic Party.
McCain’s call to ignore the “bombastic loudmouths on the radio” is also ridiculous — those “bombastic loudmouths” are responsible for Republican victories in the House, Senate, and White House. It’s elitism to suggest that Senators ignore the outcry from various public factions that object to the usual give and take of the Senate. McCain should offer an alternative to the bill being proposed so that we can debate it. The big problem here isn’t talk radio — it’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) hiding the contents of the new bill until 30 seconds before a vote. If McCain wants to worry about undermining the legitimacy of democratic institutions, he should start there.
It’s always worthwhile to watch people who have devoted their lives to the Senate speak about its value. But McCain’s call for bipartisanship is futile, and his trolling of conservative media outlets counterproductive. One can respect John McCain’s life and legacy without buying into his vision of a mythical Senate where everyone hashes out problems piece by piece, hand in hand.