Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The real Maverick. Maybe.

READERS OF YOURS truly have probably noticed that, when writing about Arizona Republican Senator John McCain at just about any time since his 2008 presidential campaign, I’ve often invoked the phrase “The Maverick” to describe him, and capitalizing the phrase's operative word to characterize his presumably independent streak in Congress. The word “maverick” was so often used in news descriptions of him, that year and earlier, that it got to be a definitional label — the kind of thing I sometimes thought deserved a “™” (trademark) signature, often applied with all pejorative intent.

We’ve had our differences in the past. But McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has lately taken on not so much a new guise as a new persona. We saw a glimpse of that (more than a glimpse, really) early on July 28, when he arrived in the well on the Senate floor and cast the deciding vote against the “skinny repeal” bid to overturn Obamacare — a vote at odds with nearly all of his Republican colleagues in the Senate. Since then, McCain wrote an op-ed piece in the Aug. 31 Washington Post that sharpened distinctions between himself and House Trump, in clear and unambiguous strokes.

He returns to Washington this week set to take the lead as the Senate debates the National Defense Authorization Act, which determines levels of government funding for the military.

He comes back to Washington facing debate on the DREAM Act and its enforcement; tax reform and other issues amid a jittery and possibly doomed administration frantically flexing its muscles.

And he comes back to Washington after his first treatments for one of the deadliest and most aggressive cancers there is.

The sunset days of the maverick of Arizona may yet be his best.

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From the Post op-ed: “Our shared values define us more than our differences. …

“Congress will return from recess next week facing continued gridlock as we lurch from one self-created crisis to another. We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important.

“That’s not how we were meant to govern. Our entire system of government — with its checks and balances, its bicameral Congress, its protections of the rights of the minority — was designed for compromise. It seldom works smoothly or speedily. It was never expected to.

“It requires pragmatic problem-solving from even the most passionate partisans. It relies on compromise between opposing sides to protect the interests we share. We can fight like hell for our ideas to prevail. But we have to respect each other or at least respect the fact that we need each other.

“That has never been truer than today, when Congress must govern with a president who has no experience of public office, is often poorly informed and can be impulsive in his speech and conduct.

“We must respect his authority and constitutional responsibilities. We must, where we can, cooperate with him. But we are not his subordinates. We don’t answer to him. We answer to the American people. We must be diligent in discharging our responsibility to serve as a check on his power. And we should value our identity as members of Congress more than our partisan affiliation.”

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IF THE SUPINE Republicans wanted to send a message to President* Trump, a message from one of their number, they’ve got one in those last sentences alone. For months, Republican senators and congresspeople alike have chafed under the wannabe-tyrannical rule of The Donald, who’s gone so far in his dangerously self-styled approach to governance as to endanger global relationships, the United States Constitution, and this nation’s deepest sense of itself and its future. John McCain’s op-ed was the first concerted pushback from those on his side of the aisle.

And for McCain, the institutionalized dysfunction that the Republicans have visited, or tried hard to visit, on Congress for the last eight-plus years — starting practically the day Barack Obama took the oath of office in 2008 — isn’t working anymore.

He continues: “I argued during the health-care debate for a return to regular order, letting committees of jurisdiction do the principal work of crafting legislation and letting the full Senate debate and amend their efforts.

“We won’t settle all our differences that way, but such an approach is more likely to make progress on the central problems confronting our constituents. We might not like the compromises regular order requires, but we can and must live with them if we are to find real and lasting solutions. And all of us in Congress have the duty, in this sharply polarized atmosphere, to defend the necessity of compromise before the American public.”

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In that last paragraph, McCain has clearly positioned himself as what’s colloquially known as a moderate Republican, and, in the minds of many conservatives, someone ready to occupy a diorama in an American congressional museum. He's certainly more moderate than the GOP’s standard-bearer (which is to set a very low bar). But with his use of the anathema word, “compromise,” in an aspirational context, McCain has called for something that those in the deepest basements of Trump’s voter base want nothing to do with.

By seeking compromise, hurling what amounts to a challenge (“We don’t answer to him”) at the president’s* head, and for opposing the Trumpian holy of holies — the death of Obamacare — McCain and the senators who no doubt privately support him have all but guaranteed a battle royal with the Trump White House in the months to come.

There’s a lot to suggest that, at the age of 80, a new John McCain is afoot. Some of this perception stems from the profoundly personal. It has to be said: the Arizona senator who’ll come back to Congress this week is a man reckoning with his own immediate mortality, not pondering it as a hazy, indistinct day far in the future, but as a real and immediate thing provoked by a thunderclap diagnosis of an aggressive, fatal disease.

McCain recently completed his first round of chemotherapy treatment for glioblastoma multiforme, a form of brain cancer that is aggressive and spreads rapidly. CBS News medical editor Dr. Jon LaPook said on July 19. “He’s in for a battle; this is a very serious kind of cancer and it's the kind of cancer that killed Ted Kennedy. Despite all the research that's been going on, we haven't made adequate progress.”

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HE’S NOT GOING gentle into anyone’s good night. And there’s time for us to be surprised to find that McCain’s old partisan reflexes are still very much intact. For all the force and thunder of his op-ed, despite its gauntlet throwdown, there’s no mention in the op-ed of where McCain currently stands on enforcement of the DREAM Act, under which as many as 800,000 alien minors are living in the United States, decades after being brought here as children, or babes in arms, by their parents seeking better lives.

He’s taken stands in defense of the DREAM Act before, and opposed some of its previous iterations because of a perceived lack of attention to border security. In a survey of his various votes on the bill, Politifact evaluated his supportive position on the legislation, finding it nuanced and evolved, but more or less consistent.

And that was before Trump assumed the White House. All that was before McCain’s diagnosis. Now a president who knows nothing about governing and not enough about government is presiding over the future of hundreds of thousands of Americans who know nothing about any other country, but who face deportation just the same.

And a wily, experienced, well-connected senator painfully aware of his own mortality is confronting the policies and principles of an insecure, badly overmatched president who acts as if he’s not even subject to mortality.

The lines are drawn for an epic autumn in Washington.

Image credits: McCain top: Drew Angerer/Getty Images via Politico Magazine. Trump: via @CBSNews.

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