When engaging in partisan warfare means delighting in a senator's cancer diagnosis
John McCain's cancer became a choice weapon on Twitter for critics of the Republicans' health care plan
"It is simply impossible to overestimate the love, bordering on worship, that reporters in Washington long had for McCain, and to a great degree still do," Washington Post contributor Paul Waldman wrote Tuesday as Senator John McCain, diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, returned to Capitol Hill to vote on the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.
"He alone is written about as though he never considers politics or his personal advancement," Waldman continued, "but makes decisions only on the basis of his unimpeachably virtuous ideals."
McCain's "maverick" credentials have always been part of a carefully-crafted persona, though closer examination of his voting record reveals a predictable toeing of the Republican party line — roughly 87 per cent of the time, to be precise.
Health care vote
Indeed, he continued to toe that line last Tuesday, voting to move ahead with debate of the Senate's health care bill while vowing to block any final passage of the proposed legislation unless substantive changes were made. As The Atlantic's David Graham put it: "[McCain] delivered an impassioned critique of partisanship, haste, and win-at-all-costs legislation, just moments after casting a vote to debate a bill that exemplifies all three."
It's not unreasonable to suggest McCain's calculated performance was hypocritical and largely self-serving, nor was it wrong to voice disappointment, even disgust, at the display. Pointed commentary, when offered fairly, is both necessary and constructive. Yet the viciousness of much of the Twitter backlash, in response to a vote which merely allowed a bill to proceed to debate, crossed far beyond righteous indignation.
"Would have been better off if he died in Nam. I have no reservations saying those words. Evil person, who just chose to kill thousands," read a top response to one particularly popular tweet noting that "McCain left hospital stay paid by taxes on flight paid by taxes to remove health insurance from taxpayers."
"Ted Kennedy fought cancer while trying to ensure healthcare for all. McCain fights through cancer to take healthcare from millions," read another of the gentler, viral missives.
Kennedy, the Democratic senator who died in 2009 of the same brain cancer now threatening McCain's life, considered comprehensive health care reform his life's mission — a cause to which he remained dedicated to the end.
Those of the far-right, then — like those of the far-left now — were happy to use Kennedy's mortality as a weapon against his political positions. At a rally against Obamacare in 2012, signs were printed to read: "Bury Obamacare With Kennedy."
This brand of ugly, partisan warfare has become standard on Twitter, an arena where the in/out group dynamic punishes moderation and stifles same-side dissent. This serves to bolster the extremes which fuel the most savage polarization: it's not enough to disagree — the other side must be despised, shamed and demonized, even if that means finding delight in another's terminal cancer diagnosis.
Regardless of circumstance, those in positions of power are open to honest reproach. But this sort of conduct is abhorrent, full stop. Excusing or engaging in the very behaviour you'd never tolerate, were it directed at one of your own, directly contributes to the toxic and abusive atmosphere routinely bemoaned on Twitter.
Broader civility is cultivated through individual actions. Granted, there are times when emotion runs high and judgement falls short, and there's plenty of room for both good-natured teasing and intense disagreement. It's the routine, unchallenged maliciousness that's destructive. Abuse is a choice. So is decency. Holding yourself and your allies to the higher standard will serve your cause better than dropping the calibre to meet the level of an adversary.
One of the few who gave McCain the benefit of the doubt after his procedural vote last Tuesday was Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to Harry Reid, the Democrats' minority leader in the Senate.
"There are those rare moments when one person can alter the course of history," he tweeted Tuesday. "If McCain is serious, he can vote for whatever amendments he likes but will vote against final passage. If (he) folds, he will end his career as a toady for Trump. But I will sleep well at night and never regret choosing to have at least a little bit of faith in an American hero."
In the wee hours of last Friday, when it mattered, McCain cast one of three decisive Republican votes to defeat his party's destructive health-care legislation. His credibility and legacy were always his own to lose. All the vitriol directed his way, in the end, undermined only the integrity of those from which it came. And ultimately — and ironically — that abuse helped McCain emerge as the maverick once again.