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I learned a long time ago not to put my hope in John McCain, but I did always have it in the back of my mind that he’d be the kind of guy to know that revenge is a dish best served cold. He could have ended this from Arizona without coming back to Washington at all, but he showed up in person, voted to let the charade proceed, kept everyone needlessly in suspense, and then shivved the president with a smile on his face:

“There is nothing Trump can do any more that will get to McCain. Battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, the maverick was willing to vote ‘no’ on the ‘skinny repeal’ amendment so that other GOP colleagues who were also opposed to the measure could vote ‘yes’ to save face with the conservative base. To this day, Trump has never apologized for saying that the former fighter pilot was not a war hero because he got captured in Vietnam. It gets less attention, but the president also besmirched the Arizona senator’s character by repeatedly accusing him of not taking care of other veterans. McCain has never forgotten.”

Given that he caused needless stress to millions of Americans and set up Mitch McConnell to look like the biggest ass in the world, a desire to hurt Trump in the most theatrical fashion possible is the only real explanation for why he had things play out this way.

It was good theater, though. It was theater for the ages.

And it left the president sputtering:

In reality, McCain did his colleagues a giant favor. I took criticism for saying their plan was doomed because some thought I’d discourage people from phoning their representatives, but I didn’t see how the Republicans were ever going to bridge their differences. Playbook calls the idea a “fantasy,” and that’s how I felt along along:

Talk to Hill Republicans and the big problem is this: House Republicans do not believe Senate Republicans can pass anything substantial — period. And the idea that a bi-cameral negotiation — called a “conference committee” — would have somehow produced a compromise was also a bit of a fantasy.”

I didn’t see it playing out quite this way mainly because I thought it was so obviously in the Republicans’ interest to give up and stop hurting themselves that they’d find a way to put the effort to bed long before McCain did it for them. But they wouldn’t stop punching themselves in the face and taking needlessly damaging votes that wasted precious legislative time that they couldn’t afford to lose. If McConnell had prevailed last night, the agony would have been prolonged into the fall and done even more damage to the rest of their plans and their ability to meet their most basic responsibilities.

Of course, maybe the plan all along was to have the House just rubber stamp the skinny Senate bill. But that may appear to have been a closer call than it ever really was in reality. Last night, it seemed as real as a heart attack, but McCain’s vote was a cover for others who were opposed and just didn’t want to have to say so. And it’s not at all clear that Speaker Paul Ryan would have had the votes or the gall to go back on the promise that he would let the bill go to conference. Either way, I said all along that the only way anything would pass is if the conservatives caved to the moderates on Medicaid. They did eventually cave, and it still wasn’t enough.

One result of this is that there’s about a trillion more in revenue serving as the baseline in the budget than if their original repeal plan had worked, and that means that the Republicans will need to find a trillion more dollars in savings in order to enact the tax reform they want. They’re not taking away your home mortgage deduction or jacking up your capital gains tax rate, and stealing your local and state tax deduction won’t come close to paying for it. If they’re going to do tax reform now with 51 votes, they’re going to have let those cuts sunset after ten years because otherwise it won’t meet the requirements of the budget reconciliation process. For the Democrats, this was like killing two birds with one stone.

The Republicans have also demonstrated that their go-it-alone plan to ram home their agenda without any compromises or Democratic input is a dead end. And they fouled the bed in the process, making it exceedingly hard for them to come to the Democrats with any credibility or good will. McConnell had the risible effrontery last night to blame the Democrats for not helping him and not contributing their ideas after he precluded them from doing either. He’ll be back making the same case on the budget and the debt ceiling and the appropriations, and he won’t be any more convincing in those instances.

If Trump wants these things done, and if he wants tax reform or an infrastructure bill, he’ll need to get down on his knees and beg the Democrats for forgiveness and help. But his first reaction is to threaten to sabotage the entire U.S. health care system.

You can predict how that will go for him.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at