Drain the Swamp

How the Media Distort McCain’s Legacy of ‘Bipartisanship’

Trump bluntly called out the late senator for truths about his record, though some still gush over the Arizonan's willingness to 'reach across the aisle'

In lionizing the late Sen. John McCain’s legacy, numerous mainstream media admirers repeatedly have distorted it by gushing over his willingness to “reach across the aisle.”

The implication is that McCain swallowed the reality of a divided political landscape and made painful concessions on key issues so as to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Generally speaking, however, that is not the story of McCain’s partnership with Democrats on the defining issues of his career.

Instead, McCain worked with Democrats on issues such as campaign finance reform and immigration because he agreed with them on those matters.

The story of McCain was not that he used his political skills to bring along Democrats to advance conservative policy.

If anything, it was the other way around: His stature perhaps helped pull a few Republicans toward the Democratic positions on those issues.

Contrast that with Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, perhaps the only senator in the past half-century who casts a longer shadow over the institution. Like McCain, Kennedy was known for his ability to forge bipartisan alliances to get things done.

But rarely did the end result move policy in a more conservative direction.

The key to Kennedy’s effectiveness was that he was willing to sign on to legislation that did not go as far as he would have liked — as long as it moved down the liberal path he preferred.

It is hard to think of a major piece of legislation Kennedy pushed where he ended up opposed by a majority of his party. Kennedy played a major role in creating the current immigration system, forging the Head Start program, lowering the voting age to 18, and creating the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

Kennedy also helped pass the Title IX law banning sex discrimination in school athletics, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

All of those bills passed either with broad bipartisan support or overwhelming support from Democrats with Republicans divided.

Now take a look at the issues most closely identified with McCain.

McCain and campaign finance. The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 — more popularly known as “McCain-Feingold” — put new restrictions on campaign spending. Although the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling later overturned part of the law, restrictions on donations by corporations and foreigners remain in effect.

McCain and his Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, tried for years to change the campaign finance system. They finally succeeded in 2002.

It is not that McCain was unwilling to compromise. The final version, in fact, was not his Senate bill but companion legislation first introduced in the House by then-Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.).

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But the legislation had widespread support on the Left. Senate Democrats voted in favor of it, 48-2. Only 10 other Republican senators joined McCain, though, while 38 voted “no.”

McCain had strong feelings on the issue and a sense of personal responsibility, given his role in the “Keating Five” scandal, which involved allegations of improper intervention on behalf of a wealthy contributor embroiled in the saving and loan crisis.

McCain’s position on campaign spending regulation, however, made him an outlier in his own party in a way Kennedy rarely was.

McCain and immigration. McCain famously was part of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” — four Republicans and four Democrats — who pushed hard for “comprehensive immigration reform.”

In exchange for increased funding for border security and some reforms to the legal immigration system — such as eliminating the lottery that randomly awards green cards from a pool of applicants — the bill would have granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.

The effort had a bipartisan veneer. But as with campaign finance reform, it was — at its heart — a Democratic bill. The 68-32 vote in the Senate drew the support of all of the Democrats and the two independent senators who caucus with them. Republicans opposed it by a 32-14 margin.

The plan died when House Republican leaders refused to bring it up for a vote.

McCain was a GOP outlier on the immigration issue long before that effort, however. NumbersUSA, which favors stricter enforcement of illegal immigration and fewer legal immigrants, gave McCain a D grade for his Senate career. That is the worst lifetime score of any current Senate Republican.

McCain and climate change. McCain co-sponsored three bills to regulate greenhouse gasses to fight climate change.

They all failed, and the Arizona senator again was outside the mainstream of his party.

Those bills were:

  • The 2003 Climate Stewardship Act, which would have capped carbon dioxide emissions and created a scholarship for those studying the issue. The bill lost on a 55-43 vote. Besides McCain, only five other Republicans voted yes.
  • The Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act, a proposal to set up a “cap-and-trade” system that would reduce emissions but allow companies that polluted to buy credits from those that were more successful at reducing emissions. McCain offered it as an amendment to an energy spending bill; it failed 60-38, with all but six Republicans voting against it.
  • The Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act of 2007, which was similar to the previous proposal. It died in committee.

Then there is McCain’s last act in office — casting the deciding vote against a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

McCain had voted against Obamacare when it first passed, and he had campaigned for his last reelection to repeal it.

When the moment of truth came last year, an ailing McCain — fresh from surgery — made a dramatic return to the Senate chamber and gave a rousing speech explaining his vote. He lamented a breakdown of “regular order” and said he voted the bill down because he was disgusted by a process that eschewed any effort to build bipartisan consensus.

That was disingenuous at best. Months earlier, he had voted with nearly every other Republican for the budget bill that allowed Obamacare to be repealed on a party-line vote.

Republicans never tried to hide their intention. It was part of the plan.

If Democratic buy-ins were so important to McCain, that is when he should have registered his complaint.

But McCain said nothing.

Still, progressives and the media swooned.

Even great men with distinguished careers have less-than-admirable moments.

But the media do not always call them out for it.

This article originally appeared in LifeZette last summer and has been updated. 

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