If you haven’t watched John McCain’s statement before the Senate on the need for Congress to address health care through its normal procedures, you should. It is a wonderful oration: blunt, powerful, and honest, buoyed by the public stature and the manifest dignity of the man delivering it and given with a tragically John of Gaunt air of authority owing to McCain’s recent cancer diagnosis. Read or watched, McCain’s excoriation of the process behind the current Senate bills is something to behold:
I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered. I will not vote for the bill as it is today. It’s a shell of a bill right now. We all know that. I have changes urged by my state’s governor that will have to be included to earn my support for final passage of any bill. I know many of you will have to see the bill changed substantially for you to support it. We’ve tried to do this by coming up with a proposal behind closed doors in consultation with the administration, then springing it on skeptical members, trying to convince them it’s better than nothing, asking us to swallow our doubts and force it past a unified opposition. I don’t think that is going to work in the end. And it probably shouldn’t.
One can only wonder what Mitch McConnell thought as this speech aired, live, immediately following the dramatic and much-publicized vote on the motion to proceed.
The speech was given a great deal of airtime and was widely cast as a persuasive critique of McConnell’s tactics, but for some liberal critics, the speech was not enough. Nate Silver tore into the media within a half hour. The establishment media, Silver noted, had generally portrayed the speech positively, while “younger and less traditional reporters on Twitter” had pointed out “McCain’s inconsistency in scolding McConnell’s process but nevertheless voting for the motion to proceed.” For Silver, this was damning: “Longtime readers of FiveThirtyEight know that I have a lot of beefs with establishment media. Moments like these, where they elevate style over substance, are a big part of why.” At The Atlantic, David A. Graham wrote that McCain’s speech was “a surreal moment: a stemwinder denouncing fight-for-every-inch gamesmanship, hasty procedures, closed-door wrangling, and legislation that puts partisan gain over helping citizens, delivered moments after McCain cast the deciding vote to forward a bill that embodied every one of these tendencies.” Farther to the left, writers were even less kind.
This critique stems from a misreading both of Senate process and of McCain’s speech. There is no inconsistency between “scolding McConnell’s process” and voting for the motion to proceed. To quote McCain’s very words, he voted “to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered.” In effect, McCain voted to open the bill to the procedures of the Senate — and he lamented that those procedures had been neglected earlier.
(It is worth noting here that McCain did cast a procedural vote in support of the repeal-and-replace bill later that evening, but the vote should probably be read as a symbolic endorsement of the conservative repeal movement and not a serious attempt to pass McConnell’s legislation. The bill required 60 votes, and there was exactly no chance that it would meet that threshold. Republicans plan to pass their final bill under “reconciliation,” which requires 51 votes but limits the content of the bill to matters related to the budget.)
There’s a fair bit of incoherence, or perhaps obfuscation, about what was at stake here. As everyone understood it, the motion to proceed allowed the Senate to consider a range of potential bills — including McConnell’s repeal-and-replace and repeal-only efforts, yes, but also any other bill that could be put together through debate and amendment. Indeed, the possibilities were so broad that many accused Republicans of not knowing what bill they were voting on. So Graham is misleading (if technically accurate in terms of Senate procedure) when he writes that “McCain cast the deciding vote to forward” a specific bill. McCain very clearly was not endorsing debate on any existing bill; he was endorsing the prospect of open debate and amendment to produce a new bill. For a lover of procedure and debate, this made perfect sense.
McCain very clearly was not endorsing debate on any existing bill.
What would the alternative have been, after all? Congress had spent months on health care; the motion to proceed, as McConnell made clear, would be the last hurrah of the conservative reform effort if it failed. McCain was frustrated that McConnell had done so much work behind closed doors, but by that point, either the Senate would proceed to debate what it had — again, with the possibility of heavy amendments or outright defeat — or it would leave Obamacare in place and move on to other issues.
This strikes me as the real reason why liberals are upset at McCain. They seem to have read his statement as a critique of conservative health-care reform writ large, when it was really a critique of the process behind the existing health-care plans. Graham’s reference to “legislation that puts partisan gain over helping citizens” is telling: The obvious problem here is that McCain and Graham do not share a sense of what sort of legislation helps citizens. But that has nothing to do with McCain’s critique of the process by which McConnell created his health-care bills.
McCain’s demand is for Republicans to repeal Obamacare through an open and fair process; liberals’ demand is for Republicans to leave Obamacare in place. That’s not a circle that can be squared. It’s perfectly reasonable, of course, for liberals to criticize McCain for endorsing a bill that they believe would hurt people and make America worse off. But it’s disingenuous for them to charge McCain with hypocrisy.
— Max Bloom is an editorial intern at National Review and a student of mathematics and English literature at the University of Chicago.