When Sen. John McCain turned his thumb upside down, signaling the defeat of the Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare, there were audible gasps in the Senate.
His vote, along with the no votes of two other Republicans—Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins—killed a bill no one liked and no one defended.
Imagine. Voting against something wildly unpopular is considered politically courageous these days.
But there is no question that McCain, Murkowski and Collins showed political courage against intense pressure from President Donald Trump to deliver him anything he could call a win.
It’s easy, so easy, to stand against a president when he is a member of the other party. Courage, though, is standing against a president of your own party when he is wrong. I’m not sure there are enough examples in Washington to compile sufficient chapters if someone wanted to update John Kennedy and Ted Sorensen’s “Profiles in Courage” best-seller from 1957.
So, yes, we gasp when we see it.
Now, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, has written his own book calling for a new political courage for the Trump era: “Conscience of a Conservative”—a title deliberately repeating the name of the famed book by Sen. Barry Goldwater.
Flake, who is up for re-election in 2018, is calling on his party members to let their conscience, not party fidelity, guide their duty to provide oversight and a balance of power against President Trump.
Republicans, he said, “were largely silent when the most egregious and sustained attacks on [President Barack] Obama’s legitimacy were leveled”—attacks led by Trump.
He sees a White House in chaos under a president with an affinity for authoritarians and a Republican Party that is in denial.
“Too often, we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, ‘Someone should do something!’ without seeming to realize that someone is us,” Flake wrote in Politico.
Paul Helmke, the former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne who is now director of the Civic Leaders Center at Indiana University, said breaking party ranks is too often viewed as political heresy, not courage. He borrowed a concept from George Orwell’s “1984,” groupthink, to describe the rigid partisanship that wants debates kept behind closed doors with dissenters expected to publicly fall in line with whatever the majority of the party caucus decides. The result, he said, is fewer voices debating policy, less open debate, and poorly-thought-out policies that the public is less likely to accept.
It’s a perfect description of the Senate health care process in which 13 Republican men—and only men—crafted a proposal behind closed doors that was doomed to fail.
We need less groupthink, more independence.
And in this era, independence takes courage.
Courage is six Republicans joining Democrats in 1974 in the House Judiciary Committee to vote for impeachment articles against President Richard Nixon.
Courage is President Lyndon Johnson pushing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 knowing it would cost Democrats the South for generations. Courage is Sen. Eugene McCarthy opposing Johnson in 1968 over the Vietnam War.
And courage is a downturned thumb saying no while Vice President Mike Pence is standing nearby, imploring you to vote yes.
When McCain, Collins and Murkowski stood against Trump on the health care vote, the president tweeted that they had “let the American people down.” No, Mr. President. They did what too few elected officials do: their jobs.•
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Schneider covered Indiana government and politics for The Indianapolis Star for more than 20 years. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.