During the final year of John McCain’s life, he became something of a hero to the #Resistance. His personal feud with current President Donald Trump, along with a few key breaks from Republican Orthodoxy, made him appear as the pinnacle of the enlightened politician, capable of pragmatic bipartisan cooperation. His passing led to a slew of liberal and centrist commentators calling for his memory to be respected, and for his family to be at the fore of America’s thoughts. The mood of the nation had been chosen, and it was one of mourning. In his absence, what hope is there for American politicians to reach across the aisle once more?
It is an idealist fantasy that McCain was a bastion of fair compromise, or that more than a handful of people in the Republican party could ever be described as such. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins may be the only two exceptions to this rule. Why, then, given his history of warmongering and elevating stupid and hateful voices, do Liberals and centerists rally behind his misleading brand of “Maverick” bi-partisanship? It could be put down to a simple case of amnesia. Both President Bushes, many of their former staffers, and countless other prominent conservatives are now De Facto #Resistance members. Has the criminality and incompetence of the Iraq war been forgotten, or even forgiven?
“Clinton’s stated aim was to bring the Democratic party and the country to the economic right, an aim the Republican party had no problem backing”
The lost golden era of bipartisan cooperation that McCain’s liberal admirers think they want back is the Clinton and early Bush years. This was a period of neo-liberal reform, financial de-regulation, and declining welfare. Clinton’s stated aim was to bring the Democratic party and the country to the economic right, an aim the Republican party had no problem backing. In fact, the headache this caused the Republicans is that they were no longer the party of deregulation. This was also a time of bipartisan support for foreign excursions and interventions into places like Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It was in this climate of bipartisan agreement that McCain became so well known and admired.It is true that McCain had a better record of working with Democrats than many of his Republican colleagues, especially having been a member of the Gang Of 14 in 2005, solving a crisis over judicial nominations. During his political career, he also supported bipartisan legislation on campaign finance, invading Afghanistan, invading Iraq, and creating the heavy-handed and invasive Transport Safety Administration.
Candidates who had fought on these issues during the cold war, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Patrick Buchanan, were often seen as extreme outsiders to their respective party mainstreams.
This cross aisle camaraderie couldn’t last forever, and the parties soon defined themselves more and more on cultural grounds, winning and losing elections based on “Culture War” questions. This had the effect of radicalising the voter bases of both parties, as questions of sex, religion, identity, and culture were made the issues of the day. Candidates who had fought on these issues during the cold war, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Patrick Buchanan, were often seen as extreme outsiders to their respective party mainstreams. Now their ideas were the norm, and social conservatism was back to take what it had lost in the culture wars of the 60s.
By the beginning of the Obama presidency, and probably a few years before, bipartisanship as it had been understood was dead. Between gerrymandering, the emergence of the Tea Party movement and the open policy of obstructing of all of Obama’s actions, no matter what they were, the Republican Party proved itself institutionally incapable of compromise. The champion of this brand of republicanism was Sarah Palin, qualified for office not by experience nor policy ideas, but by her views on religion, sex, and science. She denied evolution, opposed homosexuality and abortion, and had no time for sympathising with illegal immigrants. McCain chose her as his running mate in the 2008 presidential elections, a move which guaranteed the Republican party, and McCain personally, support from every fundamentalist and fanatic with a cable TV connection.
“Kissinger illegally sabotaged the 1968 peace conference, extending the Vietnam War by six and a half years and McCain’s time as a prisoner of war by five.”
There is another possible explanation as to why McCain’s bipartisanship was admired, one which is even less kind to the psyche of the american liberal. Consider the gushing commentary over Henry Kissinger and George W. Bush as eulogists for the late Senator. Nevermind that Kissinger illegally sabotaged the 1968 peace conference, extending the Vietnam War by six and a half years and McCain’s time as a prisoner of war by five. Nevermind that between them these two men are responsible for millions of deaths. What if liberals want politics to return to the polite world of bipartisanship simply because it was less ugly and less personal. In that way of doing politics the stakes may be high, but on the sets of debate shows and in the fancy gallas hosted by fabulously wealthy foundations you could still be friends. Polite disagreement over whether or not to invade foreign countries didn’t have a personal cost, and you could have respect for the president, an institution you trust. Bipartisanship did not die with McCain, but if it did, was it worth having?