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John McCain: A Legacy of Human Decency and True American Greatness


By Alvin Chan
A 17 year old student's view on global affairs

US Senator John McCain  (August 29, 1936 – August 25, 2018)

John McCain, Vietnam war hero, former Republican presidential nominee, pragmatic conservative and one of the most influential American statesmen of his generation, has died after suffering from brain cancer.

The six-term senator from Arizona, who was 81, four days shy of his 82nd birthday, had been absent from the Senate since December, but continued to be a voice of reason and pragmatism, railing against the extreme paleoconservative agenda of Donald Trump and urging the defence of the post-war liberal democratic world order, laid out by the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944.

McCain was a traditional Reagan Republican who was liked and respected—for who he was. His belief in putting country over party—a belief rarely seen in Trump-era American politics—made him a popular figure amongst people of all ideological stripes. He was seen by the public as not only a man above politics, but a man with the guts to challenge his own party at a time where loyalty to Trump has become a party litmus test, and challenging Trump is political suicide.

John McCain leaves behind a momentous, and complex, legacy for American politics. Two images of his legacy, taken 50 years apart, bookend his journey.

Anti-torture leader and campaign finance reformer

One is of McCain being an iconoclast, leading charges against ideas which his party was a proponent of. Being America's most famous prisoner of war, the former Navy pilot was shot down over Vietnam and spent 5 ½ years as a POW (Prisoner of War) in the north, choosing to endure torture over an easy out from a Vietcong prison, out of loyalty to his fellow prisoners. McCain carried the injuries for the rest of his life.

In this undated file photo, U.S. Navy Lt. Commander John S. McCain lies injured in North Vietnam. Photo: CBS via AP

His personal experience with torture also inspired another signature issue stance of his—a steadfast years-long effort against torture committed by the American government. After revelations that the Bush administration had permitted torture tactics in interrogations, McCain helped lead the charge for legislative changes, eventually getting his McCain Detainee Amendment passed as part of the Defence appropriations bill for 2005 after months of opposition from the Bush White House. In his later years, he voted against President Trump's nominee to be director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, for her role in a CIA black site where prisoners were tortured with enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding.

President Trump has never gone forward with his immoral, inhumane and ineffective 2016 campaign promise to bring back torture, in part because McCain clearly indicated that it was a no-go zone for him. His passing puts soldiers at risk, and puts the lives of innocent people in jeopardy. The more serious question raised is who, if anyone, can be capable of mounting a politically effective anti-torture push in Congress were Trump to change his mind on this.

Torture was, to McCain, a unique evil and something he took very personally—part of a larger pattern of his personalised view of the political landscape and country over party belief.

Another issue which John McCain took personally was campaign finance. A deregulation of elements of the big banking industry in the early 1980s led to a boom in new lending activity from savings and loan institutions, many who ended up going bust because of taking on unwise risks—at the expense of taxpayers.

One of the more than 700 saving and loans associations that went bust was Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, whose chair Charles Keating was a donor to numerous politicians' campaign funds. Beginning in 1985, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board began to look into Keating's activities, and Keating called in political favours to get the regulators called off. The climax was a 1987 meeting between FHLB officials and five US Senators — Alan Cranston (D-CA), Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), John McCain (R-AZ), John Glenn (D-OH), and Donald Riegle (D-MI)— at which it was alleged that pressure had been placed on regulators to back off.

Lincoln ended up going bust, and after a lengthy investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee concluded that McCain had exercised "poor judgement" but not done anything wrong.

The incident, however, became a black mark on his reputation and from the 1990s, he became a leading opponent of dark money in politics and a proponent for campaign finance reform. In an era where neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties were enthusiastic about the idea and, unlike today, there was no significant grassroots movement behind the reform, McCain's skill and persistence brought attention to the issue and moved his bipartisan McCain-Feingold bill through a largely uninterested Congress, under an ambivalent president.

BCRA's lead sponsors, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI). Photo: Wikipedia

The key issue that led to this miraculous bill passing was that while federal regulations capped individual donations to a campaign, they allowed for unlimited donations to a political party. Prominent politicians would thus engage in extensive raising of unlimited contributions known as "soft money", which could then be used to buy ads or engage in other political spending.

The legislation that McCain championed to close this loophole in the 1990s, the McCain-Feingold bill—was passed into law in 2002. But in the following years, as the relatively liberal minded Rehnquist Court evolved into the Roberts Court, a strong proponent of the baseless interpretation of the First Amendment as business-friendly, this provision was slowly unwound, and ultimately discarded entirely in Citizens United. In the worst decision ever made in the history of the Supreme Court, the court held that money is free speech and that corporations are people that have the same right as individuals to fund ads supporting or opposing a candidate, as long as they operated independently. This ruling led to the creation of the modern-day Super PAC (Political Action Committee)—an institution with lack of formal affiliation with a party that can raise unlimited, unregulated sums of money.

McCain may well be the last Republican to attempt to limit money in politics, and with his passing at a time when American politics has become increasingly hyper-partisan in all branches, it is hard to see campaign finance reform gaining traction in Congress. Unless the Republican Party wakes up to reality and works with Democrats to overturn a system that has morally corrupted politics and divided Americans throughout the nation, America will continue to be politically dysfunctional. So much for being the greatest democracy on Earth.   

John McCain deserves great admiration for his signature legislative achievement. But it's unfortunate that over the long period in which the Arizona senator dominated the cause of campaign reform, his range of solutions designed to solve a prevailing problem in American politics was blocked by partisan, uncompromising ideologues within his own party.

Thumbs down and opposition to Trump

The second image of McCain is of an 81-year-old senator, already suffering from aggressive brain cancer that would claim his life, stretching out that war-injured right arm, making a dramatic thumbs down signature, to kill the cynical, anti-human rights attempt to repeal Obamacare.

Had one of the other two dissenters from the Republican Party, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) voted to kill Obamacare, McCain's vote, although significant—considering how McCain was opposed to Obamacare in the first place—would have proved worthless, as the repeal bill would have passed nonetheless on a tiebreaker vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence. Passage of the bill would have destabilised Obamacare by knocking out the individual mandate to purchase health insurance and sending premiums skyrocketing.

But that was not the only act of defiance from McCain. Alongside killing any attempt to oppose Obamacare, he criticised the party line approach the Republicans used to try to pass the bill, calling for the return to the correct way of legislating. The correct legislating that McCain called for is one which has been done in the past before the Citizens United decision, and characterised by: sending the bill back to committee, holding hearings, receive input from both sides of the aisle and heeding recommendations of the nation's governors.

It was against Mr Trump that McCain would make one last political stand. McCain watched in dismay as the Republican Party that he once knew, a party that once had character and pragmatism, instead turned into one plagued with conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, religious fanatics, pro-Russia politicians and irrationality. In a speech to accept the 2017 Liberty Medal Award, McCain defended the values he long championed and which he believed were threatened by the rise of Trump's dangerous right-wing populist, nationalist agenda. He derided the "America First" policy as unpatriotic and a move away from the United States' duty as the "the last best hope of earth". This was his last political battle, to rein in Donald Trump.

Sadly, his death serves as an almost perfect metaphor for the death of the old Republican Party, the one personified by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower. He had the ability guide the nation through a troubling time, to remind his country and his party of genuine American greatness. With his passing and the retirement of another pragmatic conservative from McCain's home state of Arizona, Senator Jeff Flake, the Republican Party will be unable to return to its former glory as a compassionate conservative party.

McCain was the first person to learn from his own mistakes — including times when he was not the pragmatic conservative that he had in mind — but he was a true statesman, acting with a kind of honor that is important to the functioning of American democracy, rare in 21st century America's polarising political environment. That will be his legacy.

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