McCain’s knowledge of foreign policy and his international relationships — with leaders, activists, military men, etc. — surpassed virtually all the presidents who held office during his more than 35 years in Congress. He was one of only a handful of senators who arguably cared more about foreign than domestic policies, and was willing to expend unlimited time and political capital in defense of American security and values.
McCain was not defined by party orthodoxy. He readily made alliances with Democrats who shared his views on a given topic. He and, say, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) clashed on taxes, the Supreme Court and plenty more, but McCain joined him in 2013 in forging the Gang of 8 immigration deal (which passed the Senate 68 to 32). He understood the importance of climate change, worked with Democrats to raise awareness as far back as 1990 and promoted legislation to restrict greenhouse gases (failing several times). And, of course, he banded together with then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on the establishment of relations with Vietnam.
McCain never subscribed to the view that you had to arrive at policy positions that conformed to the most antediluvian segment of the party, nor did he think that one had to agree on everything to pair up on something. Incidentally, McCain disproved the notion that dealmakers and bipartisan-minded legislators need to be mushy compromisers. McCain was passionate and bold in his positions — he simply refused to let party hacks define what those positions should be.
And then there was McCain the reformer. He championed campaign-finance reform and reform of Veterans Affairs. He fought doggedly, to the chagrin of many in the military, to fight waste and excess costs. His health-care reform plan during the 2008 presidential campaign, we forget, was remarkably robust (despite a total lack of interest from Republicans) in advocating assistance for those with preexisting conditions and changing the unequal tax treatment of individual and employer plans. To the chagrin of libertarian-leaning Republicans he was very much in the mold of his idol, Theodore Roosevelt — that is, he was a constant burr under the saddle of bureaucracy, convention and defenders of the status quo.
Looking at the breadth and scope of his interests and the moral leadership he exerted, cable TV talking heads have been asking “Who can fill his spot?” I actually went down the list of current Republican senators and could find no one even in the same moral universe as McCain. How many times has Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) crumbled under pressure? How cringe-inducing is South Carolina Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s campaign to ingratiate himself with the president (even supporting the idea that the attorney general should be replaced — just not before the midterms), presumably aimed at eventually getting some Cabinet post? How many times is Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) going to tweet something provocative, and then do absolutely nothing to challenge the administration? Sorry, I don’t see anyone on the GOP side up for task of statesman, bipartisan dealmaker or reformer, let alone all three.
Democrats at least are not burdened by support for the worst president in American history. Perhaps, given time, those who have displayed toughness on Russia and interest in human rights — e.g., Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) — will embrace the role of stalwart advocate for U.S. leadership in the world. Maybe others who have partnered with McCain in the past will find new GOP allies on health care — as Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) did when she teamed with Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on health care.
But no, there are no war heroes in the Senate with the independence of mind and force of personality such as McCain. No puckish storytellers with self-deprecating charm. No self-aware critics of the phoniness of political rhetoric. We should not despair however. There will be new senators arriving in 2019, 2021, etc. Each one (as well as those in office now who have, to date, frittered their time away) will have the chance to follow McCain’s advice: “Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”