John McCain was no moderate. He won Barry Goldwater’s Arizona seat in 1986 and was, for the most part, a fitting heir to Goldwater. McCain supported a smaller federal government, a hawkish foreign policy and the typical Republican positions on abortion, guns and other issues.
But McCain pursued his conservative ends through means that are depressingly rare in today’s Republican Party. McCain believed in the American ideals of pluralistic democracy.
He despised autocracy. He was willing to accept defeat when his side lost a political battle. He pushed for an election system not dominated by the wealthy. He came to reject racism as a political strategy. And in his dying months, McCain was one of the only Republicans to oppose President Donald Trump not just with his words, but also with his vote.
In a recent New Yorker essay about Charles de Gaulle, Adam Gopnik described the French leader in ways that left me thinking about McCain’s legacy. “His life is proof that unapologetic right-wing politics do not necessarily bend toward absolutism,” Gopnik wrote. “They can also sometimes stiffen the spine of liberal democracy.”
The absolutism and radicalism of today’s Republican Party is the biggest threat to the country that McCain served and loved. It has left the United States impotent to deal with our greatest challenges – inequality, alienation, climate change and a global drift toward autocracy. Congress, as McCain said last year, is “getting nothing done.”
Meanwhile, threats to American power and interests grow.
I expect the Trump presidency to end poorly for Republicans, in some combination of disgrace, unpopularity and defeat. If it does, at least some Republicans will be looking for ways to reinvent their party. They will want an antidote to Trumpism, a set of ideas that manage to be conservative and anti-Trump.
They could do a lot worse than a version of McCainism. I’m well aware that McCain could be maddeningly inconsistent and flawed. He equivocated about the Confederate battle flag in 2000. He too often acquiesced to Mitch McConnell’s torching of Senate norms. For goodness sake, McCain decided Sarah Palin should be vice president. As he himself admitted, he should have done much more to fight Republican extremism.
But the sum total of his career still represents a meaningful alternative to Trump, McConnell and the rest of today’s Republican leadership. At McCain’s best, as Barack Obama said this weekend, he displayed “a fidelity to something higher – the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched and sacrificed.”
What would a Republican Party more in the mold of John McCain look like?
It would, for starters, stop cowing to Trump and stand up for U.S. national security. It would investigate Russian cyberattacks and the possibility, as McCain put it, “that the president of the United States might be vulnerable to Russian extortion.” Many of McCain’s colleagues remembering him as a brave patriot are proving themselves to be neither.
Second, a more McCain-like Republican Party would understand that racism is both immoral and, in the long term, politically ruinous. McCain had a multiracial family – the kind that is increasingly America’s future. Rather than scapegoat immigrants, he took risks to pass immigration reform. After Charlottesville, he declared, “White supremacists aren’t patriots, they’re traitors.”
Third, McCain believed in democracy and its vital, fragile institutions. He accepted his two haunting presidential defeats honorably. He has chosen the victors in those campaigns – Obama and George W. Bush – to deliver eulogies at his funeral. Most significantly, McCain fought for campaign-finance laws to reduce the influence of plutocrats.
Fourth, McCain understood that democracy sometimes means moving on. He voted against Obamacare – a reflection of his small-government conservatism. But he also voted, crucially, against its repeal – a reflection of his small-c conservatism. In doing so, he acted as a modern-day Eisenhower, a Republican willing to accept an expansion of the safety net for the good of the country.
Finally, McCain recognized that the military wasn’t the only way that Washington could use its awesome power for good. When I interviewed him during the 2008 presidential campaign, he described his economic hero as Theodore Roosevelt – a “free-enterprise, capitalist, full-bore guy” who realized that prosperity depended on government agencies “that need to do their job as well.” The outlook led him to favor policies (albeit too sporadically) to fight climate change and expand community colleges.
Imagine how different our politics could be if even some Republicans – a la T.R. – occasionally took the side of the little guy against corporate behemoths. And even if you disagreed with McCain on as many issues as I did, imagine if the Republican Party ultimately came to resemble him more than Trump.
Above all, McCain believed in American greatness – as a reality, not a slogan. He knew that the United States could play a unique role in the world, as a defender of freedom and human dignity.
He also knew that the role was anything but assured. It required hard work, good choices, compromise and sacrifice.
McCain’s final message for his country was a warning: Our greatness is in peril.
David Leonhardt is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service