Politics & Policy

What We Can Learn about Partisanship from John McCain

Sen. John McCain with former Vice President Joe Biden in a ceremony at Independence Hall Philadelphia, Pa., honoring McCain with the 2017 Liberty Medal, October 16, 2017. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)
By refusing to let politics dictate who his friends were, McCain set a powerful example we’d all do well to follow.

At a memorial service for John McCain in Phoenix on Thursday, former vice president Joe Biden spoke about McCain’s willingness to reach across party lines during his time as a senator:

During the long debates in the ’80s and ’90s, I would go sit next to John, next to his seat or he would come on the Democratic side and sit next to me. I’m not joking. We’d sit there and talk to each other. I can remember the day when I came out to see John, we were reminiscing around it. It was ’96, about to go to the caucus. We both went into our caucus and co-incidentally, we were approached by our caucus leaders with the same thing. Joe, it doesn’t look good, you sitting next to John all the time. I swear to god. Same thing was said to John in your caucus.

John McCain, of course, wouldn’t have cared about this. If he wanted to be friends with Joe Biden, he was going to be friends with Joe Biden. He certainly wouldn’t let a thing like partisanship get in the way of a friendship that he considered to be important to him. Unlike far too many people these days, McCain was able to put principle over party. He didn’t discount Democrats just for being Democrats; he evaluated every person and every issue independently.

McCain was willing to befriend Democrats even though they were Democrats, and as a proud Republican, he was also not afraid to criticize members of his own party. Far too many people seem unable or unwilling to follow his example in this regard. For example: When President Trump made those comments about the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last year — saying there were “some very fine people on both sides,” even though one of those sides was a group of white nationalists — many Republicans hesitated to speak out against him. But not John McCain:

These days, it seems as though far too many people on both sides of the aisle decide there opinions about any given issue based solely on partisanship. Think about it: We have supposedly socially conservative Republicans — people who decried Bill Clinton’s infidelities in the ’90s, arguing that they made him unfit for office — now strongly supporting Trump in spite of his extramarital affairs. On the flip side, we have supposedly socially liberal Democrats — people who had defended Clinton, saying that what happens in a man’s sex life is his own business and should not impact his presidency — now saying that Trump’s affairs are grounds for impeachment. There is no consistency, there is no logic, there are no values; there is only partisanship.

What’s more, it’s not as if people are sticking to their partisanship politely. As I wrote in a column after I had water thrown on me in a targeted attack before a speaking appearance last summer, it is now “all about ramped-up, hyper-partisan rhetoric, where you’re either on one side or the other, and must see the people on the other side as if they’re not ‘people’ at all. It’s all about either unconditionally hating or unconditionally supporting your side.”

If you’re a Republican, you’re supposed to unquestionably defend all Republicans — and, of course, to despise all Democrats. If you’re a conservative, and you happen to disagree with Trump on anything at all, you’re not just a person who disagrees, you’re a piece of cuckservative, traitorous trash. If you’re a Democrat, and you happen to agree with something that Trump said or did, you’re not just a person who agrees, you’re an evil, misogynistic racist. This approach to politics is not only infantile but damaging to our republic, because it prevents people from having to think critically about the important issues that affect us the most. Without the ability to think critically, or to have the kinds of open, respectful discussions that many complex issues deserve, we can never hope to find the best solutions to any of the problems that our country faces.

And John McCain refused to subscribe to this kind of childish, simplistic thinking. He was his own man with his own values. Some people hated him, and wrote things about him that are too nasty for me to repeat here, simply because he happened to disagree with President Trump. But he would never have done the same in their shoes, as Biden pointed out so beautifully. He would never have discounted someone’s humanity over a political disagreement.

Although I only had the honor of spending time with McCain on a few occasions, I can say for a fact that he was always very kind to me . . . and this despite our own huge political differences. (I’m a libertarian dove, and he was the most hawkish of hawks.) We had great conversations, and a mutual respect. Most people can’t get along with their political opponents these days, but John McCain could. We should all be grateful for his example, and strive to live by it.

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