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Why Washington and Republicans need John McCain

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The shocking news that Senator John McCain is suffering from a brain tumor has rocked Washington and brought out an outpouring of love and affection unseen in recent memory. "I love John McCain," tweeted former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry, another Vietnam Veteran. "He's Teddy Roosevelt's 'man in the arena.' Unbeatable. Unbreakable. God Bless." Kerry included a picture of McCain returning from his five-and-a-half years of captivity and torture in Hanoi.

It's not just admiration for McCain's lifetime of service and the excruciating pain he endured in North Vietnam that is driving the outpouring. There's also a sense that McCain is not only uniquely admirable but irreplaceable in Washington, the U.S. Senate and to the Republican Party, especially at this moment.

When party presidential nominees return to the Senate after defeat, their stature is enhanced for having gotten so close to the mountaintop. That includes Kerry, himself, George McGovern and also McCain's mentor, fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater, who served another 22 years in the Senate after his 1964 defeat to Lyndon Johnson. McCain took Goldwater's seat 31 years ago after a career in the House and the Navy, where his father was an admiral. Like Goldwater, McCain is known for his crusty candor and ripe humor, both of which seem particularly needed in an age of obfuscation.

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McCain's vaunted status in the Senate means that everything he says counts. When he questioned the GOP leadership for not following normal procedures on health care and crafting the bill in secret, it resonated. When he repeatedly sounded the alarm about Vladimir Putin and Russia, it echoed in the chamber. He threatened to oppose Donald Trump's Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson for being too close to Putin. The warning shot across the nominee's bough appeared to strengthen the spine of the ExxonMobil executive, who had close ties to the Russian president.

There are other senators who opposed Donald Trump, such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine, and who defied the president on the health care bill, but none has had the clout of McCain. The Arizonan's continued criticism of the administration's coziness with Russia and his clarion call to continue the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller has made him indispensable in the Senate. Even from his hospital bed on Wednesday, McCain denounced Trump's reported move to cease funding the Syrian opposition, accusing the administration of "playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin."

In 2000, when he first ran for president, McCain dubbed his campaign bus, "The Straight Talk Express." He'd sit for hours with reporters and speak, on the record, instead of avoiding the media and only delivering prepackaged sound bites. It was a style of campaigning that became much beloved. But it also was a reminder of McCain's fearlessness, something that was on display in Hanoi, where he was so badly beaten after his plane was shot down and he was so tortured by his Communist captors that he hasn't been able to raise his arms to comb his own hair to this day. It showed he really wasn't afraid to lose, because he'd already been through something worth losing.

That's why he's tweaked every president, voting against George W. Bush's tax cuts because they were too profligate. For a politician, he showed exceptional courage by not being afraid to be booed. When a voter in 2008 at a rally said she was opposed to Barack Obama because he was "a Muslim," McCain insisted the Democrat was "a decent family man, a citizen, who I happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues." That seems like a simple moment, but it is very different than the one that we are living in now. McCain was booed at the time. For the rest of the campaign he invited taunts at his rallies by similarly framing the race as a contest of ideas and not good and evil. Compare that to "Lock Her Up."

Trump avoided service in Vietnam because of a bone spur, although he couldn't recall, when asked during the 2016 campaign, which foot ailed him. In almost every way, McCain and Trump couldn't be less alike, and it's telling that one of Trump's first big controversies in 2015 was saying that McCain was not a hero and that he liked "people who aren't captured." Contrast that not only with McCain's extraordinary bravery in Vietnam but, more important, his having led the U.S. reconciliation with the country that tortured him because it was in the national interest. McCain's greatest strength is that he finds a way not to be imprisoned by his experiences. He has picked fights. He had a strained relationship with George W. Bush after a nasty primary battle. But McCain got over it and worked with him and every one of the six presidents while in Congress. That's true in the case of Trump, too. McCain will help this president—but he has also been a living check on Trump and Trumpism. He's a reminder of what the country needs and what, sadly, is too often in such short supply.