As the American people, elected officials, and commentators reflect on the heated immigration debate that came to a temporary close in the Senate this week many will ask, and have asked, why U.S. Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.) staked out a position that may, in retrospect, be seen as devastating to his presidential ambitions. I hope the American people, at least, step back from the obsessive play-by-play pre-season election analysis and reflect on Senator McCain’s actions for what I believe they were: One of the purest examples of political courage seen in Washington in a very, very long time.
Before I elaborate, let me state as clearly as I can that my comments are not an endorsement. I have not endorsed any Republican candidate for president and I may not make such an endorsement. As senators, telling the American people how to vote ought to be far down on our list of priorities.
I opposed Senator McCain in this immigration debate. I believed the policies he advocated were wrong for America and I used every tool at my disposal to defeat his position. However, the way Senator McCain conducted himself represented the essential qualities of leadership the American people deserve.
Senator McCain didn’t speak in generalities. He spoke in specific terms. He didn’t take a position and change his position when he came under withering fire. He didn’t pander. He didn’t equivocate. He didn’t demean his opponents in the Senate or insinuate we harbored base motives or secret prejudices. He was motivated by principle. He believed he was serving his country. He was not inspired by political strategists who foolishly believed they could use this bill to grow the Republican party, and did not lecture his colleagues about why those strategists were smarter and wiser than 80 percent of Americans.
When Senator McCain lost this battle he didn’t express self-pity or bitterness. Instead, he said he would carry on and offered a unifying message that is beyond debate, saying, “The American people will not settle for the status quo — de facto amnesty and broken borders.”
Whether you agree with him or not, Senator McCain’s actions demonstrated the qualities we rarely see in Washington — courage, character, honor, and dignity.
It saddens me that so many commentators will judge Senator McCain’s actions by how his role in this debate will impact the next poll or fundraising report. Survival is not the highest virtue in politics. Sacrifice is the highest virtue. In battle we don’t ask which soldier was a success — the one who charged the hill and lives a long life or his friend beside him who falls and leaves a widow and children behind. Whether this week helps or hurts Senator McCain politically is not the point. What matters is that without courage, we all lose.
Most politicians possess, in abundance, the skill of making promises that will appeal to a majority of voters. Very few politicians, however, ever demonstrate the kind of political courage Senator McCain demonstrated in this debate. Many qualities, of course, matter when selecting our elected leaders — political philosophy, judgment, specific plans, etc. — but the most important quality upon which all others depend is courage. On that count, Senator McCain has given all of us in the Senate an example to be followed.
— Dr. Tom Coburn (R.) is a United States senator from Oklahoma.