Arizona’s two Republican senators are making bold moves to combat the incivility and dysfunction that permeates U.S. politics today.
Sen. John McCain, the six-term veteran and former GOP presidential nominee, in both word and deed, struck a blow last week for the bipartisanship and spirit of compromise that once characterized the Senate.
And Sen. Jeff Flake — under pressure from President Trump, the right wing of his own party and the left as he seeks a second term next year — has written a book that promises a “rejection of destructive politics and a return to principle.”
In almost the same week, McCain and Flake have thrust themselves into the heart of a national discussion about the state of the American political psyche and what can be done to change it.
But while the sentiments expressed by McCain on the floor were widely applauded, the prospects of reversing the contentious atmosphere seem bleak, especially if McCain is sidelined by his treatment for brain cancer for an extended period.
“McCain goes back to the mid-1980s, and he remembers the way it used to be, when you really did have a lot of bipartisanship,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “That’s gone by the wayside. We’ve been polarized for a long time, but we’ve never been this polarized since the Civil War, thanks to Donald Trump.
“People are really dug in, and I can’t imagine that somehow all of this angst and anger is going to dissolve any time soon.”
A tumultuous two weeks
McCain, who turns 81 on Aug. 29, returned to Capitol Hill last Tuesday, 11 days after recuperating from a July 14 craniotomy to remove a blood clot.
On July 19, McCain’s office disclosed that the blood clot was associated with a type of brain tumor called glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. On Monday, McCain was set to start what his office described as “a standard post-surgical regimen of targeted radiation and chemotherapy.”
During his dramatic week, McCain delivered a memorable floor speech in which he decried a lack of across-the-aisle cooperation and recalled past statesmen and “giants of American politics” who “knew that however sharp and heartfelt their disputes, however keen their ambitions, they had an obligation to work collaboratively to ensure the Senate discharged its constitutional responsibilities effectively.”
He complained that the Senate is getting nothing done for the American people.
Early Friday morning, McCain joined fellow veteran Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in siding with Senate Democrats to kill the Senate GOP’s “skinny repeal” and effectively dash Republicans’ immediate hopes to undo the Affordable Care Act.
Though his vote against the “repeal” came as a surprise to some, McCain has been a consistent critic of the health care process — the bills were written behind closed doors outside of the Senate’s normal committee system — and he has urged his colleagues to try it again the right way.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., echoed McCain’s lament about the loss of long-standing Senate traditions and blamed both parties.
“What happens when you erode the traditions, the bipartisanship, the ability to work through the regular order, is that, very simply, that the product that emerges is not very good,” Schumer said during the debate on the bill. “There’s a reason that this body has been the greatest deliberative body in the world. And it’s because it had those traditions, and now we don’t have them.”
Schumer also seemed to acknowledge that perhaps the Democrats made a mistake in 2010 by enacting the Affordable Care Act without GOP help.
“We are the first to admit that the present law needs some changes,” Schumer said. “We are the first to want, maybe having learned our own lessons, that it should be done in a bipartisan and sharing way.”
On Friday, McCain reiterated that he sees path forward to health care reform through reviving the Senate’s “rich history of comity, trust and bipartisanship” from the “partisan rancor and gridlock.”
“The vote last night presents the Senate with an opportunity to start fresh,” McCain said in written statement. “It is now time to return to regular order with input from all of our members — Republicans and Democrats — and bring a bill to the floor of the Senate for amendment and debate. … I encourage my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to trust each other, stop the political gamesmanship, and put the health care needs of the American people first. We can do this.”
Flake takes risk with book
Flake’s entry into the discussion is by way of a book that goes on sale Tuesday, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.
The book takes its title from the late senator Barry Goldwater’s influential 1960 political call-to-arms, The Conscience of a Conservative, in what Flake calls “a homage to Goldwater,” who represented Arizona for five terms in the Senate and was the 1964 Republican presidential nominee.
“At that time, (Goldwater) thought the Republican Party had been compromised by the New Deal and thought the party needed principles to go by,” Flake told The Arizona Republic. “But now I think the party has been compromised by populism and protectionism.”