May 25, 2004

John McCain: senator beyond politics

As polls continue to show a country that is polarized on opposite sides of a political divide, and as the Bush and Kerry campaigns continue to exchange bitter accusations even six months from the election, I can't help but think of what could have been had Americans elected Senator John McCain president four years ago. Ever since he emerged on the national stage, he has been a voice of independence, reason, and common sense in the U.S. Senate on issues such as campaign finance reform, Iraq, and tax cuts--—a voice that has been and continues to be too ignored by the ideologues in his own Republican Party. Of all of America's politicians, he most embodies the hope of a government that can inspire confidence in Americans, of a government based on ideas and not ideology, and it's about time he is truly heard—if not by the GOP, then by Democrats and the rest of the country.

It was McCain who took a stand for fair campaign financing, co-sponsoring (with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold) the landmark bill seeking to ban unregulated soft money as well as to impose donor disclosure requirements and to limit advocacy group spending on ads. McCain not only rallied support for the issue during his 2000 presidential campaign, he kept it alive in the Senate despite the fact that it was virtually ignored by the party leadership. His doggedness finally secured the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002 despite the opposition of the majority of congressional Republicans and a large number of Democrats. President Bush begrudgingly signed it into law (he opposed it in 2000 and signed it inconspicuously without the usual pomp and ceremony), and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican whip, led a protracted (but ultimately failed) judicial battle against it.

McCain embraced campaign finance reform on principle, raising an independent voice in opposition to his own party because, despite the electoral advantages that soft money presented, he knew the influence of uncapped money on American elections needed to stop. He showed the possibility that even in today's Congress common sense, and not the ideology of political parties or special interest groups, could triumph. He continues to do so today, as when he recently questioned the logic of those pushing to make the Bush tax cuts permanent while the country remains at war with armed forces that remain under-funded and ill-equipped. "All we are called upon to do is not spend our nation into bankruptcy while our soldiers risk their lives," he said.

Representative J. Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker of the House, responded derisively: "If you want to see the sacrifice, John McCain ought to visit our young men and women at Walter Reed and Bethesda. There's the sacrifice in this country." McCain, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who spent five years as a POW in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," knows the meaning of sacrifice. In his comments, he was rightfully pointing out that after a series of tax cuts and now a push for more, Americans at home haven't been asked to make nearly enough of the same sacrifice that is being made by those who are fighting now in Iraq. It is ludicrous for him to have to be chastised by Hastert, a man who has never experienced the meaning of wartime sacrifice. It is another example of a Republican leadership, which is once again, as they did with campaign finance reform, marginalizing McCain for daring to raise a point that strays from their ideological doctrine.

If McCain had been elected four years ago, and not taken down in the primaries by a viciously negative Bush campaign, we might today actually have had a president who embodies the ideal of being a uniter and not a divider. The man who was elected, George W. Bush, made this promise a central part of his campaign; now, judging from the anti-U.S. sentiment now dominating the world and the polarized state of the country, the promise seems like a ridiculous joke. Bush's party continues not only to ignore the rationalism of McCain, but also to deride him for his ability to think outside the bounds of party-ideology. If the Republicans would rather be represented by the partisan likes of J. Dennis Hastert and cast off McCain, the rest of the country and Democrats should be there to embrace the senator from Arizona.

I say this as a committed liberal, fully aware that Senator McCain's views on issues like abortion, gun control, and gay marriage may not exactly gel with mine. But I write in his praise more pressingly as an American who is sick of the bitter partisan fighting over everything from tax cuts to Iraq to you-name-it. As a Democrat I am prepared to accept that for the good of the country we now need to pick our leaders not on party lines or on the basis of a position on abortion, or gun rights, or any other specific, polarizing issue. If the last four years have proven anything, it is that we need leadership that can exercise independent thinking and common sense and leave behind the rhetoric of which side is always right and which is wrong. I could never before have imagined voting for a Republican, but bipartisanship has to start somewhere and John McCain represents the hope that it may not be an impossible dream. Even if he doesn't join Kerry on the Democratic ticket, and barring a near-miracle he won't, I hope for our sake that someday we'll be able to find Senator McCain on a presidential ballot.