Conservative U.S. Senator Ron Johnson opined on a radio show that colleague John McCain voted against the Obamacare repeal because he was affected by brain cancer, with which the 2008 Republican presidential nominee was recently diagnosed. Although Johnson has since attempted to distance himself from those controversial comments, the damage has already been done. And it could be widespread damage for the GOP: Johnson’s remarks reveal the tension and dissent within the party. Johnson was obviously frustrated with McCain’s unexpected pro-Democrat vote, and ham-handedly tried to blame it on the man’s recent medical diagnosis.
Johnson’s off-the-cuff criticism of McCain, which implied that the Senator was mentally “fuzzy” due to his condition and voted against the Obamacare repeal out of confusion, provides Democrats and moderate Republicans with more ammo to fight back against Donald Trump and his allies. In repudiating Johnson’s comments, McCain’s spokesman reminded everyone that the Arizona legislator had clearly explained why he opposed the Obamacare repeal bill in a speech on the Senate floor. The famous Vietnam veteran said that he disagreed with the bill because it was created “behind closed doors” and asked skeptical Republicans to quietly fall in line rather than request improvements.
The fallout from the Republicans’ failed bid to repeal Obamacare got worse shortly afterward, when President Donald Trump took to Twitter (yet again) and began blasting Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for failing to get things “done.” Ron Johnson, already in hot water over his McCain comments, more firmly embedded himself in the President’s camp by supporting the chief executive’s frustration on CNN. Democrats may seize on Johnson’s words to paint Senate supporters of Trump as turncoats who have eschewed the noble body’s tradition of reasoned debate and compromise in exchange for brownie points from the alt-right and right-wing media outlets like Breitbart and Fox News.
Accusations that John McCain only voted against the Obamacare repeal because he was mentally confused will further invigorate Democratic resistance. “If Ron Johnson thinks you have to be loopy to vote in favor of protecting public health, then I guess I’m loopy,” Dems will quip, to good public effect. They will portray conservative critics of McCain and other GOP moderates as laughably unintelligent and woefully out of touch. “How desperate are they, willing to throw their own 2008 hero under the bus?” will be another public message.
Although bashing McCain has yet to topple Donald Trump and his minions, it definitely won’t help reverse his sliding poll numbers. And, each time Senate Republicans scuttle a Trump initiative, doing so becomes easier and easier. While Ron Johnson’s barb may have been uncomfortable for McCain to hear, the former P.O.W. has survived. Despite his “no” vote, McCain has come through the week in much better shape than either Johnson or Trump. In the future, he may feel emboldened to vote against the President’s goals, along with other moderates.
The lash of the pro-Trump bloc will become less and less painful, and Republicans will have to decide whether they remain with the President or whether they will fight for their own values.
John McCain did not vote against the Obamacare repeal because he was confused, but because he was seeing clearly. Receiving medical treatment, paid for by the government that employed him, likely inspired McCain to accept the benefits of liberal reforms like government-funded healthcare. Perhaps he wondered how many non-wealthy citizens would be able to receive his level of treatment without worrying about bankruptcy. Perhaps he wondered how many citizens would go to receive similar treatment and be told that their health insurance company was denying their claims for various profit-seeking reasons.
In fact, Ron Johnson should be mindful of the fact that someone who has received more medical treatment is likely a better judge of what healthcare policy should be. McCain’s vote, occurring shortly after surgery, was likely influenced by wisdom and first-hand experience of having seen America’s medical care in action. How many Republicans are voting to strip away Obamacare’s protections who have never had to undergo the knife? How many are voting to let more Americans navigate free market healthcare who have never had family members with pre-existing conditions?
Compassion is not the result of mental confusion caused by cancer. It is not mental impairment to think that the United States should remain closer to, rather than move further away from, the type of healthcare enjoyed by the entire rest of the industrialized world. Deep down, many moderate Republicans surely realize this fact. They do not speak up, or vote their conscience, because they fear the insults of Trump’s supporters and primary challenges funded by pro-Trump super PACs. But when John McCain shows that Trump’s wing of the party lacks the power to control him, other moderates will grow braver and vote for sound policy rather than to appease the White House.