Where’s Your Maverick Now? John McCain’s Last Stand

He returned from surgery to the Senate for Obamacare repeal vote. Has cancer given him any empathy for 15 million Americans who are living with endless uncertainty thanks to the disease?

John McCain, the ancient warrior, stood up yesterday in the Senate chamber and cast his vote to proceed with debate on dismantling the Affordable Care Act, thereby opening the way to ease the burden of healthcare on the nation by allowing a lot of the nation to die off.

McCain used his moment to call for the Senate to return to its historic role as a body where both parties work together. “It’s our responsibility to preserve that,” he said, “even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’” On “winning,” McCain brandished sarcastic air quotes, gesturing near waist level because thanks to the healthcare he got in a North Vietnamese prison camp, he can’t raise his arms above his head.

The “winning” comment was aimed at Donald Trump, of course. Yet winning was the one reason why McCain had flown across the country fresh from a terminal cancer diagnosis. Right after that stirring speech, McCain surrendered the healthcare security of millions of his fellow cancer patients so that Donald Trump could get a win.

Did Trump appreciate the sacrifice? As always, he was smaller than the occasion. Speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden after the Senate vote, the President gloated, jabbed at Democrats, and threw in a couple of empty sales pitches reaffirming that he knows nothing about healthcare and doesn’t care to learn.

By Wednesday morning, Trump was back to his regular duties, staging sideshows on Twitter while his allies shred our system. This time Trump outdid himself. He declared—in a Tweet—that trans Americans will be banned from serving in the military. McCain, in his capacity as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, pushed back.

But wait, under the smoke screen, where were we with healthcare? By Wednesday morning, McCain had voted to advance Mitch McConnell’s “repeal and replace” BCRA bill. McCain’s office insisted that his “yes” vote on BCRA was only procedural.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Wednesday, McCain, as he had promised, voted “no” on a straight repeal bill. But what comes next? McCain has to know that, given the current cast of characters in Washington, this debate is likely to end by shortening the lives of cancer patients like him. He may have honest intentions, but his boss in the White House doesn’t.

In the jungle that is Twitter, there’s no compassion for a political enemy who happens to be terminally ill. There’s no distinction between life and dish. McCain is a poster boy for all that.

Trump voters greeted McCain’s brain cancer diagnosis with good wishes like, “He’s a traitor and a psychopath. His interests are of the globalists. They all need to die, faster the better. Then we straighten things out.” After yesterday’s vote, progressives took over, although generally without the death threats: “John McCain just voted to strip healthcare from the millions of Americans who paid for his.”

For me, this guy is never going to be reduced to a tweet. As a progressive who’s also a cancer veteran, I see McCain as a complex human being who deserves my empathy as he faces a frankly terrifying cancer. But has cancer given him that same empathy for 15 million Americans who are living with endless uncertainty thanks to this disease? Has it given him any empathy for the low-income LGBT people and their families who, if the ACA is repealed, would lose access to affordable health care through Medicaid? Has his disease given him any sense of commonality with people with HIV/AIDS who rely on preventative and wellness services and chronic disease management?

Now it’s on to a new vote on Friday, and one more chance for McCain to show the kind of leadership he was once capable of. Even after he foisted Sarah Palin on us, I liked him as a person. Now that he’s allowed this healthcare mess to move forward, will he be overtaken by one more bout of decency? Will he display the same courage as Lisa Murkowski, the Alaskan who should have been his running mate?

Or will the old maverick go out as just another tool?

Anne Stockwell is a journalist, filmmaker, and fierce cancer activist. A former editor-in-chief of The Advocate and three-time ovarian cancer survivor, she is the founder of Well Again, which helps survivors find new direction, confidence, and community.
@annewellagain