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John McCain chose to operate like the standard-issue politicians he likes to rail against

Sen. John McCain (R-Az)
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Sen. John McCain (R-Az)

In 2008, presidential candidate John McCain bravely proposed a health-care reform that Fortune magazine said was a giant step toward "laissez faire liberty" in health care. He wanted to empower consumers to find the best health care and even end the tax break for employer-sponsored plans.

In 2015, McCain joined all but one other GOP senator in voting to repeal Obamacare. The next year he ran an ad in his primary campaign against a Tea Party Republican claiming he was "leading the fight to stop Obamacare." That ad helped him win 51 percent of the primary vote.

Just this year, McCain introduced a bill to "fully" repeal Obamacare and replace it with a "free-market approach that strengthens the quality and accessibility of care."

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Then, last Friday, McCain faced a choice on the Senate floor. He could vote with all but two of his GOP colleagues for "a skinny repeal" bill and get to a conference committee, where negotiators from the House and Senate could devise a bill that might pass both chambers. Or he could effectively leave Obamacare in place, dooming any realistic effort at curbing it given the uniform Democratic opposition to any real reform.

McCain sided with the status quo, killing the "skinny repeal." Journalists rushed to gush over his vote, cast only a few days after a surgery to remove a dangerous brain tumor. The New Yorker's take was typical: "Throughout his political life, John McCain has for many reasons enjoyed bipartisan respect and even reverence: his independence of mind (usually), his candor (usually), his decency, his love of country."

McCain's stated reason for killing reform was that the bill in front of him "fell short of our promise to repeal and replace Obamacare with meaningful reform." True enough, but this is a perfect example of letting the perfect be the enemy of the better.

Obamacare is a disaster that, left untouched, will be saved only by a massive taxpayer bailout of insurance companies. Premiums on Obamacare exchanges have gone up by double digits annually ever since their formation in 2013. Out-of-pocket expenses — including copays and deductibles — rose 40 percent, to $2,649 per person on average, between 2011 and 2014. Hundreds of counties across the country are likely to have no health insurers offering plans on their local exchanges next year.

Far from being a modern-day "profile in courage," McCain's vote against advancing Obamacare reform represents a complete reversal of the position he won his Senate election with last year. John Merline of Investor's Business Daily notes that "In the private sector, promising one thing and delivering the other could be referred to as 'deceptive trade practice.' For some members of Congress, it's just another day at the office."

Like every American, I wish John McCain the best in his battle against a brain tumor. But in what may prove to be one of the most important votes he has cast in his 35 years in Congress, he chose to operate like the standard-issue politicians he likes to rail against.

Commentary by John Fund, a national-affairs correspondent at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @johnfund.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

©2017 National Review. Used with permission.