Deep concerns


I plan to return to my series on American journalism soon. But today I want to touch on a topic of very current interest: the appalling Republican health care bill.

Susan Collins, “moderate” Republican Senator from Maine, is deeply concerned about it:

“I can’t support a bill that’s going to greatly increase premiums for our older Americans or out-of-pocket costs for those who aren’t quite old enough for Medicare yet,” Collins, a key centrist vote, said in an interview with NBC’s “MTP Daily.” “I cannot support a bill that is going to result in tens of millions of people losing their health insurance, and I cannot support a bill that’s going to make such deep cuts in Medicaid that it’s going to shift billions of dollars of costs to our state governments … and to healthcare providers, such as rural hospitals, which would be faced with a great deal of uncompensated care.”

“So it isn’t any one factor,” she continued. “I do care also about funding Planned Parenthood. It’s all of those factors put together that will influence my decision.”

So is Dean Heller (R-NV):

Throughout the health care debate, I have made clear that I want to make sure the rug is not pulled out from under Nevada or the more than 200,000 Nevadans who received insurance for the first time under Medicaid expansion. At first glance, I have serious concerns about the bill’s impact on the Nevadans who depend on Medicaid. I will read it, share it with Governor Sandoval, and continue to listen to Nevadans to determine the bill’s impact on our state. I will also post it to my website so that any Nevadans who wish to review it can do so. As I have consistently stated, if the bill is good for Nevada, I’ll vote for it and if it’s not – I won’t.

When seeing these quotes, I’m reminded of the master of deep concerns: my Senator, John McCain.

Remember the debate over Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State nominee who had suspiciously close ties with Vladimir Putin? John McCain was “very concerned” at the time:

Asked Wednesday by “CBS Evening News” whether he will vote for Rex Tillerson, McCain responded: “No. I have concerns.”

“I am very concerned about someone who took a friendship award from [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, who is a butcher,” he said. “Actually, what Vladimir Putin is is a KGB agent. That’s all. He wants to restore the Russian empire.”

What ended up happening? Unsurprisingly, McCain caved, albeit after “weeks of agonizing over Rex Tillerson’s ties to Russia”. The pain he must have felt – poor thing.

Though let it not be said that McCain lacks emotional range. His palette includes not just agony and concern, but also sadness. For instance, after Trump’s firing of James Comey, McCain commented that he was “disappointed” by the action.

So too with healthcare.

McCain, R-Ariz., was asked by reporters Tuesday if he is satisfied with the process.

“No, no, of course, not,” McCain said. “For the obvious reason. We used to complain like hell when Democrats ran the Affordable Care Act. Now we’re doing the same thing.

On Fox News, McCain expanded upon his previous comments:

“I do not like the way that this thing is being put together, and I think it’s wrong,” McCain, R-Ariz., said in an interview on the Fox News Channel. “And I think the American people, by not knowing what’s in our bill, are more and more swinging towards what is clearly a failed policy, and that is, of course, Obamacare. We need to come out with what we stand for, what we believe in and how we’re going to implement it — that’s the way democracies are supposed to work.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time that John McCain has issued a strongly worded criticism of the Republican Party. Two episodes from the presidential campaign stand out. One was during the Khizr Khan affair. If you recall, Khan was a Gold Star parent who delivered a powerful speech at the DNC denouncing Trump’s bigotry and intolerance and reclaiming the mantle of patriotism and Americanism from Republican assholes. Trump, in response, lashed out at both Khan and his wife, and McCain issued a “powerful” (in the words of CNN) statement against Trump. These, to me, are the most important passages:

“The Republican Party I know and love is the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan.

“In recent days, Donald Trump disparaged a fallen soldier’s parents. He has suggested that the likes of their son should not be allowed in the United States — to say nothing of entering its service. I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement. I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates.

“In the end, I am morally bound to speak only to the things that command my allegiance, and to which I have dedicated my life’s work: the Republican Party, and more importantly, the United States of America. I will not refrain from doing my utmost by those lights simply because it may benefit others with whom I disagree.

“I claim no moral superiority over Donald Trump. I have a long and well-known public and private record for which I will have to answer at the Final Judgment, and I repose my hope in the promise of mercy and the moderation of age. I challenge the nominee to set the example for what our country can and should represent.

“Arizona is watching. It is time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party. While our Party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.”

The second episode was after Trump’s tape with Billy Bush leaked, and McCain rescinded his previous endorsement of Trump. He explained,

Donald Trump’s behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy.

The act of being concerned should be a first step, not a last one. If not, then it was just that – an act. Standing up for one’s principles isn’t always easy, I’ll admit. There exists a large spectrum of commitment to principle. One type of commitment is intuiting that a problem exists in the first place, and overcoming the propensity towards denial and inaction. Two is understanding the reasons why the behavior or speech violates one’s principles. Three is taking steps to change one’s own behavior to ameliorate the problem. And four is changing the behavior of others, either by evangelizing those willing to change or by blocking those unwilling to.

As we advance up the ladder of commitment, from steps 1 to 4, the potential for pain and harm to one’s reputation increases. That’s both a good and a bad thing: if a principle didn’t make strict demands of us, then it was likely not ethically valuable or interesting in the first place.

It is easy to recognize, for instance, that eating meat is an ethically problematic activity from either the environmental or animal rights perspective. It is much harder to eliminate meat entirely from one’s diet – think of the social friction that results at parties, or the difficulty of preparing tasty vegetarian food at home and of finding such food when eating out. And it is even more challenging to be that annoying person who occasionally or frequently turns social interactions into opportunities for converting the benighted. I have slowly made the transition from step 1 to step 2, but even step 3, not to mention step 4, still gives me pause, even though I have convinced myself that eating meat is wrong.

So I sympathize with Senator McCain to some extent. He naturally fears the prospect of retaliation from Donald Trump, of ostracism from his party, of criticism from his rabid conservative base, and of abandonment by the Republican money-men. And make no mistake: McCain is certainly better than those senators who don’t voice their concerns (because they don’t have any). If the prospect for impeachment arises during the Trump administration, McCain’s vote will be much more available than, say, the two Republican senators from Oklahoma.

But I get the sense that those Republicans who are “deeply concerned” might not have their hearts in the right place. (Shocking, I know.) In part, they are actors playing the role of the “moderate moral conscience” in the Republican legislative melodrama. They intend to save the country from their worst excesses of hardline Republicans by extracting minor concessions. Once their favored amendments are made, they can claim their small victories, conservatives can claim that the bill is not so extreme (after all, they were forced to compromise!), and the press will dutifully report that the bill has received the seal of approval of even a reasonable Republican like Susan Collins. Everyone wins, except the millions who will be left with inadequate health insurance and the thousands who will die as a result.

There is a moral vacuity to Republicans like John McCain. He claimed that the Republican Party nomination is not an “unfettered license to defame”; that Trump’s behavior “ma[de] it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support [to him]”; that Trump’s remarks “do not represent the views of our Republican Party”, and that he doesn’t like the way the health care bill is being put together. But all of those statements are false and empty. How can the views of the party’s standard-bearer not represent the views of the party? How can a license not be unfettered if no one is willing to apply the fetters? And how can one’s complaints about process and tone be viewed as substantive if they are not accompanied by similarly vehement actions against those processes and those tones? John McCain explained in his statement on the Khizr Khan incident that he “will not refrain from doing my utmost by those lights simply because it may benefit others with whom I disagree”. I call bullshit. McCain is easily one of the 50 most powerful people in politics. If this is his “utmost” then he’s truly pathetic.

There was one thing in McCain’s statement I agreed with, though. McCain stated that he “claimed no moral superiority over Donald Trump”. That’s probably true, although probably not for the reasons he intended. For what is the moral difference between the monster who will kill scores of Americans and the man who will, although evincing deep concern, let them die?


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