A Last Testament to McCain: His Colleagues Really Liked Him

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Like the last senator to have lain in state in the Capitol, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, John McCain was an honest-to-goodness war hero. But Michael Bloomberg is exactly correct that McCain deserves to be honored at least as much for his long political career as for his service in Vietnam. 

McCain’s political career was complicated, with partisans on both sides and with all sorts of ideologies and policy preferences finding reason to praise him or heavily criticize him at one point or another, both for his policy preferences and for his actions. In part that’s because of his celebrated independent streak. But I’d rather think about it as just a case of someone who really took his job seriously. McCain was a senator like Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole — one who openly lusted after the White House without ever getting there. And like all three of them, McCain’s ambition worked the way James Madison wanted ambition to work: He tried to make of his Senate career something worthy of a presidential campaign. And like Humphrey and Kennedy and his Arizona predecessor Barry Goldwater, once his days as a presidential contender were done, he found a way to use his national prominence and his position in the Senate to advance causes he cared about. 

That’s worth celebrating. 

McCain is being called a “last lion” of the Senate by some. I don’t see any reason to adopt that kind of pessimism or nostalgia. He was a first-rate senator, but the talent level of the current Senate is quite high as far as I can tell. Nor should we fool ourselves into thinking that McCain wasn’t a partisan. As Slate’s Yascha Mounk correctly points out, we should appreciate McCain precisely because he was a very partisan politician who nonetheless worked with, respected and occasionally sided with people from the other party.

Or to put it another way: We’re now in a highly partisan era with especially strong, leadership-dominated congressional parties. Politicians, even very talented ones, need to learn how to make the kind of individual marks that Congress has always made possible during an era in which it’s easy to just let the leadership do the heavy lifting. It’s easy, too, given the revival of partisan media, to just pitch everything to the producers at Fox News or MSNBC. McCain, at least symbolically and often substantively, stands for an effort to construct a model for a partisanship that doesn’t settle for the easy way forward. 

McCain, of course, wasn’t a hero to Republican or Democratic-aligned media; he was beloved by the “neutral” media, which weren’t neutral at all when it came to him, in large part because he was by all accounts both unusually accessible and unusually fun to be around for them. This frustrated partisans on both sides quite a lot, although it was as far as I can tell simply something McCain earned by his own actions. 

What seems to have also been the case was that McCain was extremely well regarded by his colleagues in the Senate, who are about to honor him by renaming the Russell Senate Office Building after him (and kicking segregationist Georgia Democrat Richard Russell’s name off the building; I suspect that when Russell died in 1971 there were probably plenty of people who called him the last lion of the Senate or something similar). In this, McCain is similar to the last senator whom his colleagues honored in that way — Michigan’s Philip Hart. Hart was, like McCain, a serious substantive senator, but the reason there’s a Hart Building wasn’t because of his legislative or oversight record but because his colleagues simply thought so highly of him.

Whatever one thinks of McCain’s policy choices or specific actions, that McCain’s colleagues similarly liked and respected him, along with a lifetime of public service, is a truly impressive legacy. 

1. Tom Mann on the Republican Party.

2. Seth Masket reports on Democrats, superdelegates and the fault lines still visible in the party.

3. Simon F. Haeder and Susan Webb Yackee on deregulation and the Trump administration.

4. Philip Klein suggests some skepticism about polls showing the overwhelming popularity of “Medicare for All.” I think that’s largely correct. Doesn’t mean Democrats shouldn’t try to do it if that’s what they want, but there’s no good reason to believe it will be easy to pass or have massive public support, especially at first. 

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O’Brien on Allen Weisselberg and the Trump Organization.

6. Perry Bacon Jr. with the Senate after McCain

7. And a good Ariel Edwards-Levy item about public opinion and Trump’s bad Tuesday.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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