‘Live like you were dying’. These words, the title of Tim McGraw’s 2004 #1 country hit song, describe the change in perspective one can have when presented with sudden news that you may not have long to live. The subject of the song is diagnosed with a severe illness, and instead of feeling burdened or saddened by the news, he embarks on adventures, reconciles with his father, and otherwise begins living his life both fuller and freer than he had previously been doing, determined to make the most of his last days on earth.
This phrase has been on my mind the past couple of weeks while thinking about Senator John McCain, who had a very interesting, influential, and (to some) inspirational last month. Earlier in July, during a routine checkup in his home state of Arizona, it was discovered that McCain had developed brain cancer, and he underwent an immediate operation. In the meantime, the Senate was debating health care reform legislation, and with the vote expected to be close, every vote was going to be pivotal. In fact, they postponed debate for a week to allow McCain to recover before returning to Washington.
McCain cast two pivotal votes during this process, the first on Tuesday, July 25th in favor of allowing debate to proceed, and then, in dramatic fashion in the early morning hours of July 28th, he cast the deciding no vote, causing the Senate (by a margin of 49-51) to reject (for now) any further efforts to repeal, or amend, the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as Obamacare).
Many of you may have strong opinions one way or the other regarding this result, and the effect of the Republican Congress’ failure to enact any legislative changes on this issue at this time. Instead of discussing that aspect of this story, I would like instead to focus on McCain’s decision process and possible reasons for his votes, how his personal life situation likely affected those decisions, and what that could and should mean for our political process, both in terms of how Congress votes on legislation and how we as citizens should vote going forward.
To gain an insight into McCain’s thinking, it is important to note some of the issues he referenced in his speech on the Senate floor immediately after voting to proceed to bring the bill up for debate. While this initial vote supported for the moment the Republican efforts to proceed with debate on the legislation, it was clear, in his call for a return to (‘regular order’) that he was bothered by the process, particularly the secretive, closed door meetings, limited if nonexistent efforts to seek input from the other side of the aisle, and what was expected to be limited time for public notice before voting on important legislation.
Fast forward to Thursday evening July 27th when McCain, with the vote on the final bill approaching late that night, holds a news conference with two other senators (Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson) expressing their concern about the pending legislation, in effect seeking assurance from the House that, if passed by the Senate, the bill would head to conference committee for additional revisions instead of being passed into law in its current form. It seemed at the time as if all 3 senators were indicating that they would reluctantly back the bill in the upcoming vote later that night, but in hindsight it seems important to note that Graham and Johnson did most of the talking, and McCain kind of stood in the background and didn’t say much. Everyone basically assumed the 3 were in effect speaking with one voice, but perhaps we should have expected McCain to have something else up his sleeve.
Then of course, McCain gives the dramatic thumbs down in the actual vote early Friday morning. Whatever you think of this decision, what is without question is that this was a pivotal, unexpected vote, perhaps the most consequential single vote on a piece of legislation by a member of Congress in quite some time. Typically, members of Congress try at all costs to avoid being a single deciding vote, especially one that either indicates a switch of position on an issue or goes against the wishes of party leaders (this vote did both). In light of all of this, an important question that should be asked is: why did McCain feel freedom to do so?
An obvious answer to that question is that McCain, at age 80, coming off surgery for brain cancer, and with 5½ years remaining in his current term of office, is almost assuredly not running for election again (in fact, he may not live to the end of his current term). As such, he likely felt unburdened by promises to special interests, or the need to plan his actions for future campaign strategies, issues that all too often influence the actions of our elected officials. Just like the character in the song, his grave health diagnosis, instead of bringing him down, likely provided the incentive he felt he needed to make a dramatic impact in a memorable way. Indeed, while Congress is currently in August recess, all indications are that when they return in September, plans are to begin bipartisan discussions on reforming the Affordable Care Act, under regular order in conference committees, as McCain suggested. So, in voting like he was dying, McCain appears to have truly changed the course of history, no doubt in his mind for the better.
What impact does, or should, this example have on how WE vote? Unlike politicians, our votes on election day are secret (as long as we want them to be), and while many of us in our hearts and minds may feel allegiance to a political party, that allegiance should continue to hold if and only if we feel that party (or candidate) continues to have our best interests at heart. So, if you feel that your party continues to represent your interests well, then great, continue to give them your vote. But if you start to feel a change of heart as the next election approaches, and you feel like sending a message, bucking the trend, or going against what others may be expecting of you, never be afraid to vote like you were dying.