McCain was the keystone in partnerships with Democrats that led to the passage of the Patient’s Bill of Rights in 2001, campaign-finance legislation (with the Democrat Russ Feingold) in 2002, and, in partnership with Edward M. Kennedy, comprehensive immigration reform (including a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented) that cleared the Senate in 2006. (House Republicans ultimately refused to consider the bill.) He led major bipartisan Senate coalitions that sought to combat teen smoking under Clinton and reduce the carbon emissions linked to global climate change under Bush; conservative resistance eventually blocked both efforts. He helped to broker the 2005 agreement that (temporarily) preserved the filibuster for judicial appointments, while clearing a backlog of stalled GOP nominees.
Even in national security, McCain led the bipartisan effort that in 2005 banned the Bush administration from using torture. And for good measure, McCain voted against both the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, on the grounds that each was too heavily tilted toward the rich and would open too large a hole in the federal budget. “He is the ultimate reform Republican,” says Brinkley, “but that means he never found a home within the conservative movement, in the same way TR never did.”
During many of these initiatives, McCain’s Democratic partner was Kennedy (who, ironically, died from the same aggressive brain cancer that took McCain.) Both were tough, funny, and thick-skinned: Both believed an opponent today could be an ally tomorrow. And they shared a belief that seems almost quaint now: that the point of the Senate, of Washington, of government, was to find solutions to the country’s big problems. Unlike a growing number of his Republican colleagues, McCain never accepted the contention, immortalized by the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, that the most important thing government could do was “leave us alone.”
Like Kennedy, McCain was “an institutionalist,” noted Stephanie Cutter, Kennedy’s longtime communications director. “They believed in the Senate. This is an anathema today. Nobody works like this anymore. They were probably the last great partnership.”
The pragmatic, alliance-building McCain was most on display in his 2000 campaign. He began the race as a long shot, far behind Bush, who, as the son of a former president and the governor of the second-largest state, started with massive advantages in money, organization, and name identification. But McCain pounded his message of reform (particularly in campaign finance), duty to country, and non-ideological problem solving through an endless procession of town halls in snowy New Hampshire towns and shocked Bush with a decisive victory in the first-in-the-nation primary there. (I was having lunch on the day of the vote with members of the Bush high command, including the top strategist Karl Rove, who abruptly left the table, ashen faced, as the first exit poll results trickled in.)