The news on Wednesday evening that Sen. John McCain has glioblastoma brain cancer is already providing Washington an opportunity to rewrite the Arizona Republican's legacy. A diagnosis of cancer is never cause for celebration, no matter who receives it. But McCain, whose decades-long career in the Senate is seen by his peers as cause for praise, has a record that should not be glossed over.
It's a natural reaction to refer to someone with such a diagnosis in the most positive light. Yet for politicians, whose careers can span decades in the public eye and whose work affects the lives of millions at home and abroad, a measure of national introspection is needed. McCain's legacy is being painted as one of a hero, fighter, and an independent American institution — the subject of a discussion in the media that ignores the historical reality of his time in Washington. When personality rather than policy is brought to the fore, you can end up with a dangerous sort of revisionism that skips over legislative record.
As to be expected, politicians from both sides of the aisle showed their support for the Senator on social media almost immediately after the announcement was made. McCain is “as tough as they come,” tweeted Hillary Clinton and a “tough fighter” according to Sarah Palin. He was described as “Sharp as hell and tougher than a $2 steak” by former Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan. Former President Barack Obama, and McCain's onetime presidential opponent, tweeted his support too.
“John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I've ever known,” the president wrote. “Cancer doesn't know what it's up against. Give it hell, John.”
While the senator may well be a tough man, kind father, and good friend, his policy priorities during his decades in office have had detrimental effects on people here and across the world. During his decades in office, McCain has pursued policies that have led to, at minimum, thousands of deaths. McCain has made it clear that he will support the GOP health care bill, which would strip health insurance from over 20 million Americans. It's particularly important to focus on that point — McCain's hospital stay is being provided for by the government so he has the chance to come back and work to ensure the rest of the country has less access to care.
During his decades in office, McCain has pursued policies that have led to, at minimum, thousands of deaths.
McCain began reinventing himself as an independent voice in his party in the late ‘90s. It was mainly a media strategy — as Harry Enten points out at FiveThirtyEight, McCain was a slightly more loyal-than-not partisan during his first decade in the upper chamber. Yet it was a strategy that caught on. McCain's perceived willingness to buck the more extreme elements of his party gave him credibility, camera time, and a growing profile on the national stage.
McCain used his political fame to make a play for the Republican nomination for president in 2000. He was doing well against his opponent, George W. Bush, until the latter's strategy of appealing to the anti-miscegenation caucus in the South Carolina primary deflated McCain's chances. Smarting from the defeat, McCain was seen as a potential thorn in Bush's side for the president's first term.
But in reality McCain was a loyal soldier, voting with Bush's priorities some 95 percent of the time (though, as Enten points out, McCain only voted with his party as a whole for 79 percent of the time from 2001 to 2006).
McCain has been a loyal soldier, voting with Bush and Trump most of the time.
Independence in rhetoric, though not in practice, has defined McCain's career. The senator fell in line with the at-all-costs opposition to the Obama administration from 2009 to 2017 despite the occasional disagreement stemming from his party's alliance with the hard right Tea Party movement.
Not much has changed in recent months. McCain has been in step with President Donald Trump for Trump's first six months in office — despite an acrimonious personal history between the two that included Trump disparaging McCain's war record — voting with the president 90 percent of the time. It would be a slightly higher percentage, but McCain broke with the party on May 10 to oppose rolling back Obama-era regulations on methane emissions. That vote was not based on any principled reason related to the environment, though — instead, McCain's vote was reportedly based on his anger over the unconnected firing of FBI Director James Comey the day before.
McCain taking such action in response to an insult to a member of the security state shouldn't be a surprise. Whether it's intrusive civil rights violations on the home front or aggressive military action overseas, McCain is one of the most pro-war voices in the Senate. A proponent of the 2007 surge in Iraq — an escalation of military violence that has been credited in mainstream circles with drawing down violence in that country — McCain has never met a foreign policy challenge that couldn't be solved by an increase in U.S. forces and weapons.
Since 2007 McCain has called for surge policies in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan, using the tactic as a shorthand for “send more bombs, guns, and soldiers into country X.” These policies, when adopted, may eventually lead to overall reductions in sectarian violence in countries torn apart in the first place by U.S. intervention. Yet in the first months of any surge, civilian casualties rise from the crackdowns. Considerations for lives lost overseas from his foreign policy priorities don't seem to occur to McCain, however. Deaths of Iranians from any U.S. attack would surely be in the thousands. But in 2008, McCain used the possibility of such an attack as fuel for a riff on the classic Beach Boys “Barbara Ann” — “Bomb Iran.”
Considerations for lives lost overseas from his foreign policy priorities don't seem to occur to McCain.
Perhaps that's because to politicians like McCain, all lives are not created equal, especially not those in the Middle East. One of the enduring moments of his 2008 campaign was a widely lauded moment when the senator was asked by a supporter in Minnesota about Obama.
“I can't trust Obama,” the woman said. “I have read about him and he's not, he's not uh — he's an Arab.”
McCain took the microphone and set her straight. Per POLITICO:
”No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab].”
This quote says a lot about McCain the politician. If Obama is all of those good things instead of being an Arab, then the inverse must also be true. Perhaps that's why their lives don't matter so much to the Arizona senator.
McCain is 80. There are, at the very least, hundreds of thousands of people who will never see that age because of his tenure in the Senate. McCain's love of endless war and an overly bellicose foreign policy coupled with the reality of his support for the destructive policies of his party will continue to kill people here and abroad after his death. We can be sad about McCain’s condition, but we must not forget his true legacy.