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EDITORIAL: With Sen. McCain goes principled conservatism

York Dispatch

The late Sen. John McCain was a fighter all his life.

He fought for his country in Vietnam, defending the ideals of freedom and democracy in a war that, ultimately, did little to further either.

John McCain speaks with loyal followers at the Concord Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Concord, N.H., talking mostly about the war in Iraq and about global terror on July 13, 2007. McCain made his first appearance on the trail since shaking up his presidential campaign by replacing his campaign manager and laying off several staffers. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

He fought for his life as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, where, for more than five years after being shot out of the sky on a bombing mission, he endured pain, torture and deprivation before returning home to a hero’s welcome.

He fought for his political future as a freshman senator in the 1980s, when, as one of the so-called “Keating Five,” he overcame charges of influence peddling on behalf of developer Charles L. Keating III and emerged with only a mild rebuke by the Senate Ethics Committee.

He fought to lead his nation — a bruising battle amid a financial collapse largely of his own party’s making.

He fought to the end. After receiving a diagnosis of brain cancer last year, McCain valiantly returned to the Senate chamber for several key votes before taking up residence in his native Arizona, where he continued to speak out publicly while receiving medical treatment. He announced last week that he had discontinued that treatment and, one day later, he was gone at age 81.

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His voice will be missed — not only in the Senate, where he was a commanding and persuasive figure — but in the public arena, where his unvarnished views and historic perspective provided gravitas and insight to his positions.

It played well in York County, where McCain bested Democrat Barack Obama by more than 25,000 votes in the 2008 presidential election.

Still, the loss of McCain leaves the Senate all but bereft of the type of consensus-seeking Republicans his generation was known for.

Flags flying a half-staff in honor of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., frame the U.S. Capital at daybreak in Washington, Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018. McCain, 81, died at his ranch in Arizona after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

Not to paint the six-term senator as anything less than the conservative he was. Recall, as a congressional representative in 1983, he was one of the minority of lawmakers who opposed making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday (a position he later reversed and regretted).

But the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law (formerly the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002) was a monumental piece of bipartisan legislation — the type that seems all but unimaginable in the current Congress, where rules are bent and broken to ram through one-party bills.

It was this very practice that provided the setting for what proved to be McCain’s final dramatic moment in the Senate last summer. Having returned to Washington following diagnosis of and treatment for his cancer, he served as the deciding vote on a GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. As he stood in the well of the Senate, well past midnight, McCain, with an actor’s flare for spectacle, held out his arm and turned thumbs down. 

It was a stunning example of principle over party — also an endangered species in modern-day Congress.

But McCain coupled his vote with an eloquent plea for a return to “regular order” — the process of debating bills in a public, bipartisan manner. His last great stand was for lawmaking as a process of consensus and compromise — rather than as a partisan exercise in majority rule.

The Senate will miss that voice. Just as the campaign trail will miss the voice that corrected a voter at one of McCain’s own political rallies late in the 2008 presidential contest.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., arrives at the Capitol for a weekly Republican policy meeting, in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, amid the diminishing, last-ditch GOP push to overhaul the nation's health care system. Looking at the twilight of his career and a grim cancer diagnosis, McCain, who prides himself on an independent streak, could not be moved to go along with the Graham-Cassidy bill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“I can’t trust Obama,” said a female supporter. “I have read about him … he’s an Arab.”

McCain took the microphone from her and defended his opponent: “No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man (and) citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues ... He’s not (an Arab).”

That response is difficult to imagine coming from the current occupant of the Oval Office.

McCain’s penchant for being a maverick wasn’t always on the money (his selection of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his 2008 running-mate was a gamble that didn’t pay off). His temper sometimes got the best of him. And his calls for decorum and “regular order” often left him a lonely voice in an increasingly partisan Senate.

But his principled conservatism was consistent, congenial and considerate of opposition.

The Senate — and the nation — will miss those views and that voice.