The soaring music still hums in our ears. Phrases from the eulogies still echo. Those who attended Sen. John McCain’s funeral and some of those who watched it on TV may still be marveling at the showing of national unity and purpose. If others thought it a bittersweet goodbye to an America that has passed, that notion would be foreign to McCain. McCain was and will be revered for his optimism, and his certainty that we are not inevitably and indefinitely stuck in the age of Trump will linger.
In particular, I continue to mull these remarks from former president George W. Bush about McCain:
He was courageous — with a courage that frightened his captors and inspired his countrymen.
He was honest, no matter whom it offended. Presidents were not spared. (Laughter.)
He was honorable — always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings.
He loved freedom, with the passion of a man who knew its absence.
He respected the dignity inherent in every life — a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators.
Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots. There was something deep inside him that made him stand up for the little guy — to speak for forgotten people in forgotten places.
Sadly, none of that describes the current Republican Party, which seems set on systematically uprooting all these values. In the past, Republicans such as Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt — and McCain — exemplified those virtues. However, it’s getting more difficult by the day to imagine that the current GOP is the heir to the party of Reagan, TR and McCain — let alone Abraham Lincoln. Watching GOP lawmakers bemoan McCain’s loss but do nothing to rein in, admonish, restrain or check the man who threatens the values McCain stood for leaves one despondent about the prospects for the GOP’s future.
Andrew Cline writes, “For a few hours, politically engaged Americans glimpsed the shimmering surface of a once cherished American ideal — national unity. The cause of this collective embrace across ideological divides was the death of an honorable man.” Cline continues, “McCain blended the military concept of honor with the understanding of public virtue adopted by the Founders in their quest to create and preserve the union.” The party of President Trump and his invertebrate allies in the House and Senate has failed to confront a president with no honor, no perceptible public virtues.
So why not start anew, launch a party built on the ideals McCain propounded, the very same values that Democrats and Republicans extolled all week? Four principles come straight from the McCain playbook:
- American leadership based on American values: Support democratic allies and the international economic system that has existed for 70 years. Stand with freedom-seeking peoples struggling against oppression.
- Defense of the rule of law and civil liberties: Protect the apolitical nature of the Justice Department, an independent judiciary, a professional civil service, access to voting and the freedom to criticize our government. This takes effort and vigilance.
- Truth in all things: Whether it is scientific studies, crime statistics or Russian interference in our elections, there can be no alternative facts. Truth is truth, and Americans should have the most accurate and complete information regarding what their government is up to (e.g., visitor logs, a Supreme Court nominee’s papers, responses to Freedom of Information Act requests). Unless release of information implicates national security, the public should be able to see it all — these people are our employees.
- Public virtue, public service: A tough new standard for eliminating conflicts of interest and self-dealing is long overdue. A new national service initiative (perhaps in conjunction with student loan forgiveness) would be timely. No longer can we discount the important of character in picking leaders.
These four items cannot be separated from one another. America cannot lead on the world stage if we do not defend the rule of law and civil liberties at home. We cannot uphold the rule of law at home if we accept bald-faced lies and disinformation as truth — or come to believe there is no such thing as truth. We cannot address tough policy issues (e.g., income inequality, trade, immigration, climate change) if we live in a fantasy world where inconvenient facts are ignored and know-nothingism is prized. If we do not embody civility, empathy, kindness, tolerance and courage and show a willingness to defend and serve the country, then we will earn the enmity of other Americans and other nations.
I would add a fifth item, which is required if we are to accomplish the other four: shared prosperity, without which, we’ve learned, the underpinnings of liberal democracies come undone, demagogues point to outsiders as the cause of trouble, and faith in government erodes. That means no more reverse Robin Hood schemes (e.g., freezing civil service employees’ wages while mulling indexing capital gains) and giving priority to the people who need it most, not the ones (e.g., seniors) who vote the most. It requires government to reassess regulations (e.g., zoning, professional licensing) that make the rich richer and the powerful more powerful. We need to promote and subsidize work, narrow the economic gap between rural and urban America, encourage robust legal immigration (which creates jobs, pays for entitlements and infuses our economy dynamism in every generation) and expand trade (with adequate help for those displaced).
The week of remembrance for McCain clarified that policy specifics generally are a matter of negotiation as long as one is aligned on the big things — sticking to the facts, defending our alliances, standing up to international bullies, opposing assaults on the First Amendment and bolstering the rule of law. We sort ourselves by political ideology, but in practice, ideology does not carry the day. The end product, if we are ever able to reach agreement, is invariably different than the specific plans candidates so vehemently defend in campaigns and vigorously try to differentiate from opponents’. (President Barack Obama eventually adopted a health-care plan similar to what Hillary Clinton ran on.) It’s the values one holds that determines the organizing principles and policy choices for a party (e.g., for or against international leadership, for or against lessening income inequality).
Well, you say, third parties cannot win. Listen, nothing in the last two-plus years in American politics has been normal or predictable. No one knows which direction the Democratic Party will go in 2020. (Yes, it could be the inheritor of the McCain tradition.) To rule out a third party — or a replacement for a failing GOP — would be shortsighted.
Finally, one might argue that a third or new party isn’t needed because one of the major parties already promotes this or that issue. Unfortunately, consensus is missing and will is lacking in the current hyper-partisan system. A third party with leverage to push one party or the other — or maybe both — gives a small number of lawmakers leeway to advance big ideas. (The problem with today’s “moderate” GOP lawmakers is that they are afraid of their own shadows, unwilling to use the leverage they have.)
Sure, but how do we find a president ready to champion a McCain philosophy? Maybe Trump’s presidency will be long gone in 2020 and the GOP will return to the days when people like McCain, former senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.), former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the late congressman Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and former senator Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), among others, filled the ranks of presidential contenders. Honestly, though, I doubt that.
It’s also possible Democrats will recapture the spirit of former senators Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Scoop Jackson (D-Wash.) and President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Well, I’m not seeing a groundswell for that, either. (That said, Democrats have some potential stars among their House nominees.)
In short, a vast political wasteland exists where marooned citizens wait to be inspired and enlisted in the fight to defend our democracy. These voters, generally center-left to center-right, may differ on policy issues but they strongly embrace the values McCain personified. We saw those people along the McCain funeral route and in the lines that snaked through the Arizona and U.S. capitols. We saw them in Washington National Cathedral embracing friends across the political aisle who are now comrades in the fight against racism, rank lies and illiberal government. We saw them in the person of former intelligence officials standing up to the president on the right to criticize him. The McCain voters are out there, I promise you.
Just as 9/11/01 galvanized a generation of young people to enlist in the military and otherwise serve their country, perhaps 9/1/18 (the date of McCain’s funeral) will be the inspiration for another generation of Americans to eschew tribalism and seek common ground in defense of overarching values. In this window of time, following McCain’s death and in the midst of the awfulness of the Trump administration, we might find the conditions to break the mold and rekindle the spirit of McCain, if only a little.