John McCain became an American hero fifty years ago, after his Skyhawk A-4E was downed over Hanoi and he was held for five and a half years in torture-filled captivity. On Friday morning he was a hero all over again, to many though not all Americans, after he bailed on his GOP colleagues, shot down their efforts to repeal Obamacare and inflicted harm and humiliation on President Donald Trump.
Beyond their display of personal courage, the two events are inextricably connected. In July 2015, a month after he first declared his candidacy, Trump said he didn’t consider McCain a hero because “I prefer heroes who weren’t captured.” The demeaning insult shocked America, with many observers predicting, wrongly as it turned out, that it would cause irreparable damage to Trump’s presidential candidacy. Exactly two years later, McCain proved the old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold. He kept America on its toes till the early morning, gave no indication that his vote was finally going to reflect his position, theatrically lifted his hand before voting no, savored his sweet revenge and gave Trump’s many haters a much-needed infusion of hope and Schadenfreude.
But seven years of GOP pledges to repeal Obamacare didn’t end in failure only because of the insults that Trump hurled at McCain. Throughout this whole time, GOP lawmakers failed to present a plausible alternative to Obamacare that did not increase premiums dramatically or decrease the number of insured even more. They failed because of futile efforts to square the circle and to reconcile the party’s extremist majority with its moderate minority, which is objectively closer to Democratic centrists anyway. They failed because the Republican leadership preferred camouflage and subterfuge to fairness and honesty, pushing lawmakers to blindly support the so-called “skinny repeal” of Obamacare without giving them enough time to examine it even superficially.
The failure, which can justifiably be described as colossal, sealed what was already a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for Trump. A few hours before the Senate disbanded in mayhem, Trump’s White House was portrayed as Sodom and Gomorrah as well. The incredibly vulgar and profane outburst by Trump’s new director of communications, Anthony Scaramucci, against other senior figures in the White House, published in The New Yorker, shocked even the most seasoned and cynical of Washington observers, who thought they’d seen it all. Trump proved again that his scandals are usually just prologues to even more slime. Instead of taking reverse and restarting his presidency, Scaramucci’s appointment, for now, seems more like a Thelma and Louise type of acceleration towards the abyss.
The double debacle strengthens the perception that rather than taking control of his presidency, Trump is losing his grip on it. His cruel tweets against Attorney General Jeff Sessions enraged the conservative colleagues of the former senator from Alabama. The efforts to besmirch former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who is now leading the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia, as well as leaks from Trump’s confidantes about the possibility that he would dismiss the special counsel, caused other GOP lawmakers to warn the White House about the dangers of impeachment. Trump’s weirdly inappropriate speech to the Boy Scouts and his callously abrupt decision to bar transgender people from serving in the military sparked widespread disgust and confirmed the view that Trump is either unwilling or incapable of changing his bad ways.
But the failure in the Senate is not an orphan. It isn’t only Trump who should carry the blame. The broken and whiny tone of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s speech following the vote was not just a lament for the unkept Republican promise to replace Obamacare but a eulogy for McConnell’s prestige and image, which sustained critical injuries. McConnell has traditionally been viewed as an anti-hero who makes up for his lack of charisma with wily parliamentarian skills. After Friday, he’s just a loser, period.
The defeat exposed the GOP as a party that is incapable of explaining even to itself why it does what it’s doing. Trump and top GOP lawmakers could only mumble bitter nothings about their compulsion to destroy Obamacare. They never countered the damaging assessments repeatedly issued by the Congressional Budget Office about the enormous harm that would befall millions of people insured by Obamacare as well as the U.S. health system as a whole. They failed to convince their two renegade female colleagues in the Senate, Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and Susan Collins from Maine, that their proposals would not harm American women. Worse, they tried to coerce the two senators - who, unlike McCain, have been steady and steadfast in their opposition to the GOP proposals - to change their votes by threatening them bluntly, but only managed to strengthen their resolve.
The Republican defeat, of course, is a cause for celebration for Democrats. It sends a message of hope and vitality to he hitherto demoralized party, which will now set its sights on a possible victory in the 2018 elections. There’s nothing like the smell of a victory over Trump and the GOP to invigorate the party base and motivate it to try and emulate the kind of grassroots uprising that allowed their rivals in the Tea Party to take over the House of Representatives in 2010.
The festivities, however, will soon be over. The efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare will now be replaced by a campaign to sabotage it. And within a few short hours or days, Trump is bound to retaliate with furious venom that will reflect the crushing embarrassment he’s suffered in recent days. Unfortunately, it’s safe to assume to Trump won’t skip a chance to use McCain’s medical condition, a brain tumor, to humiliate the Arizona senator and to “explain” his renegade vote. Many Americans will be disgusted by such tactics, but not all. Two years ago, the Politico report on Trump’s denigration of McCain’s captivity in Vietnam opened with the line “Donald Trump may have finally crossed the line.” Since then he’s crossed many more lines, broken many more taboos, insulted and denigrated individuals and groups in America and abroad and he’s still there, in the White House, with many more years of foul-mouthed invective and ill-advised decisions to look forward to.
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