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.
McCain forcefully argued for thawing partisan tensions and restoring a sense of camaraderie in an upper chamber now locked in perpetual gridlock and infighting.
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.”
Populism and protectionism are two words often associated with Trump, whom Flake pointedly refused to endorse or vote for in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump remembers Flake’s lack of loyalty, and there is persistent chatter about Trump and his allies possibly backing a Republican challenger in Flake’s 2018 primary.
“A lot of the book is not just about policy, but it’s about demeanor and comportment,” Flake said.
Flake said he agrees wholeheartedly with McCain’s call for a return to regular order and bipartisan cooperation to solve problems, which he said some of the newer senators have never experienced.
Conservatives can’t just refuse to reach out to Democrats, Flake said, because on some of the biggest problems the nations faces, such as the debt, the deficit, entitlement spending, health care and immigration, one party can’t do it alone. But there is an inability to work together, he said.
One reason is that ideological organizations on both sides keep pressure on elected officials to toe the party line and keep scorecards of their votes on the key issues of interest on the right and the left.
In some cases, these forces will support primary challengers against incumbents who stray too far from orthodoxy.
On Friday, the Tea Party-aligned group FreedomWorks announced it was awarding McCain and other GOP senators a “FreedomFraud Award” for voting to defend Obamacare despite having voted for its repeal in 2015.
“The best example I had, and I mention it in the book, is that I got in the Senate and immediately joined the ‘Gang of Eight,’ ” Flake said. “That’s a problem when people happen to reach across the aisle — it’s called a gang, like it’s illicit activity. That’s where we’ve come, that it’s so unusual.”
The Gang of Eight consisted of four Republicans, including McCain and Flake, and four Democrats, including Schumer, who collaborated on a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
The 2013 legislation sought to balance a pathway to citizenship for millions of people without legal status who had settled in the United States with an unprecedented investment in border security and a modernized visa system. The bill cleared the Senate, but the House didn’t act on it.
The bill went through the committee process, was amended, and then went to the floor.
“That’s what regular order used to be, and that bill passed with a big majority,” Flake said. “That was one of the last examples that we’ve had of that.”
Flake praised McCain for continuing to run the Senate Armed Services Committee, which McCain chairs, in a bipartisan way, saying it is just about the only committee that still works that way.
“It’s largely because of John, because he insists on it, and he’s been around, and he knows regular order and knows the process,” Flake said.
A bigger risk?
Though McCain dominated the headlines after he cast the deciding vote on the “skinny” health care bill, which Flake supported, Flake may be taking the greater political risk with his book.
McCain was safely re-elected in 2016 after having campaigned on a promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.