Sens. Mitch McConnell and John McCain have a fundamental difference in their approaches to politics.
The Kentucky Republican counts success almost entirely through political victories, wins and losses best measured by the elections every two years. The Arizona Republican measures success in the worthiness of the fight — a determination that is sometimes influenced by his predilection for playing the “maverick” and the attention that brings.
In their more than three decades together in the Senate, that disparity has never been on display quite like in the past few days. On Tuesday, McCain was a conservative hero, scorned by liberals as a hypocrite. By early Friday morning he was back in liberals’ good graces, the subject of some grumbling from Republicans and on the receiving end of a pointed tweet from President Trump, who earlier in the week called him a “Brave — American hero!”
McCain’s decisive vote, after 1 a.m. Friday, to oppose McConnell, Trump and the overwhelming majority of Senate Republicans on the effort to revamp the Affordable Care Act will help define his career. It was an encapsulation, in less than 60 hours, of how often he goes from friend to foe.
First, after being diagnosed last week with an aggressive form of brain cancer, McCain flew back to Washington on Tuesday to cast a crucial vote allowing Senate Republicans to begin considering their bill. McConnell grew emotional as McCain delivered a 15-minute oratory about returning the chamber to its glory — a world where, in his view, committees, not party leaders, crafted bills and bipartisanship was the norm.
By 1 a.m. Friday, that warmth toward McCain had turned into fury as he joined two other Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to deny McConnell his last-ditch attempt to keep alive the effort to repeal Obamacare.
“It’s time to move on,” the majority leader said after the bill’s stinging defeat.
It was the most humiliating legislative loss of McConnell’s more than 32 years in the Senate, all the more so because he had shrunk his ambition to a narrow bill that was meant only to serve as a vehicle to open a new round of negotiations with House Republicans.
McCain had issued a pretty clear warning, during his Tuesday speech, that he wasn’t much interested in just chalking up a victory for Republicans.
“Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy,” McCain told his colleagues, not even two weeks removed from the surgery above his left eye that revealed the brain tumor.
A few minutes later, he urged them to join him in rejecting that approach, calling for more across-the-aisle give and take. “It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning,’ ” he said. “Even when we must give a little to get a little.”
This is the single biggest divide between McConnell, 75,…