The Media’s Perception of McCain Depends on His Health Care Vote

If you follow American health care coverage closely, your perception of John McCain has likely changed at least three times over the span of nine days.

On July 19, the general public treated John McCain’s glioblastoma diagnosis as a nationwide tragedy.

Many took to social media to commemorate and wish the American war hero and current Arizona senator well in his battle against an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Given his illness, the political media was shocked when McCain decided to fly back to Washington D.C. on July 25 to cast what was going to be the critical vote the Senate health care debate hinged on.

Before he did that, the McCain gave a passionate speech calling for increased trust in American institutions, bipartisan compromise and principle above partisanship.

The speech, despite being received well from those on the Senate floor, confused many Americans because he chose to cast the deciding vote to continue debate on the BCRA, a bill he has publicly criticized. Some also believed his vote was due to partisanship, the crux of that speech.

Largely because of this vote, in a matter of a week, the same public who prayed for the senator to get better denounced him.

Lucia Graves for The Guardian condemned McCain’s behavior as of July 25 and points out that his vote, despite the senator’s Tuesday speech condemning extreme polarization in government, shows that “politics appears to have triumphed over logic.”

“There are many reasons to respect McCain … but even his remarkable stoicism and service can’t excuse what he just did,” wrote Graves. “To put it another way, faced with a rare opportunity to make a real tangible difference, he risked traveling amid failing health to make possible the very thing he decried.”

“If McCain truly does want a better and more bipartisan Senate, it’s not enough to give speeches saying he wishes it would be so,” wrote Vox’s Andrew Prokop, also skeptical of McCain’s intentions given his seemingly partisan vote. “He needs to go about trying to make it happen.”

A vote to keep debate open wasn’t inherently an endorsement of the Republican health care plan, but many, like Prokop, reasonably interpreted it as a partisan move.

After many in the media spent three days poking holes in McCain’s speech — and in extreme cases, his character — the senator decisively struck down the GOP’s proposed “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, shocking Democrats and the general public for the third time in a span of eight days.

Partisans and outlets who were so critical of McCain’s speech on incremental change and bipartisan compromise quickly shifted their opinion of the Arizona senator.

“Late Thursday, McCain delivered on [his speech], voting to oppose a ‘skinny repeal’ of Obamacare. One that would have resulted in 15 million people becoming uninsured by 2018. One that would have pushed premiums up by 20 percent next year,” Laurie Roberts wrote in a passionate op-ed for AZ Central. “Sen. John McCain literally put his life on the line this week to fly to Washington, to make a point, to take a stand.”

In the slew of partisan-motivated articles that seemed to temperamentally change their opinion of McCain depending on whether his actions served their cause, some attempted to analyze his speech and the principles he claims to stand for.

Writing for Slate, William Saletan praised McCain’s midnight vote and outlined some key principles in the speech, which he thought “present[ed] a way of thinking and conducting oneself that’s diametrically opposed to President Trump’s way.”

“Does McCain live by these rules religiously? No. He has bowed to his party’s orthodoxies too often, and like other Republican elders, he has failed to stand up to Trump’s abuse of office,” wrote Saletan. “But what McCain said on Tuesday, and what he did on Friday, was right.”

The Washington Examiner columnist Quin Hillyer commented on the odd yet consistent principles John McCain follows, despite the polarized political world of the Senate: “McCain revealed himself as a true Madisonian, deeply imbued with the founding insight that our system is designed not for radical or rapid change but for carefully painstaking policy experimentation.”

Perhaps McCain’s devotion to Madisonian incrementalism explains why he voted to continue discussion and ultimately voted down policy he disagreed with.

“His principles are unusual,” noted The Atlantic’s David A. Graham. “He values process, decorum and Senate traditions to a degree that many observers find strange — and anyone who expects him to be a hero for their own ideological cause is likely to be disappointed.”

Graham brings up interesting questions — should McCain’s principled devotion to bipartisan compromise be praised, relied upon and viewed as a bastion of hope against an ever-increasing polarization in political society? Or should McCain’s dedication to procedure and compromise be seen as unreliable and archaic given the ever-changing political sphere?

In a nation that collectively seems to be fed up with partisan-inspired hostility, it’s been fascinating to watch the media go against, crawl back to, and deeply analyse the words of an accomplished political figure in a matter of a few votes on the Senate floor.

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