Congress returned this week, down a man. John McCain, over the past days, has been eulogized and mourned by partisans and pundits of every stripe and by ordinary people who loved and admired him.
His courage, his irreverence, his certainty, his temper, and most of all, his moral clarity endeared him to both the nation and his beloved Senate.
As I listened to the kind remembrances and emotional remarks about this unique man, I couldn’t help but marvel at just how rare a moment this was, to find such universal praise and sincere affection for a politician in Washington’s toxic partisan atmosphere.
In much of the commentary, McCain was referred to as the “Lion of the Senate,” and many of my conversations with reporters after his passing centered around the question of who might be the next lion. It’s a question I couldn’t answer.
McCain’s death clearly leaves a void and perhaps represents the end of an era in Congress. Somehow, I think the good senator would scoff at the notion that he was irreplaceable. But given the current state of the political environment, it’s fair to ask whether we have seen the last lion, and if so, why.
Watch: Bush, Obama Eulogize Former Political Rival and Friend, John McCain
Nature itself gives us some insights. Lions are an endangered species and their numbers are dwindling, but they aren’t extinct. Still, we know that animals who can’t survive in their existing natural habitats either die out or leave for a better environment.
So I would respectfully suggest that if people want to see more lions in Congress, then perhaps it’s time to start looking at problems with the habitat.
While there are plenty of fine men and women of both parties serving in the Senate and the House — patriotic people of integrity, intellect and compassion who want to do right by this country — the current hyperpartisan habitat in Congress is causing good members on both sides to leave. It’s also discouraging qualified candidates from running for political office and disillusioning voters who see a dysfunctional government that doesn’t understand their needs and concerns.
If we want more lions, we need to breathe new life into a bipartisan ecosystem that respects and rewards men and women who put the country first and politics second. We can start with three steps.
Snark doesn’t stick
First, change the tenor of political discourse.
Speaker Paul Ryan recently spoke to a group of congressional interns about civility. He told them, “We have reduced our debates to a stream of hot takes and tweets.”
He went on, “I know that snark sells, but it doesn’t stick. It doesn’t last. It doesn’t unite people around a bigger idea or a greater cause.” Political discourse has reached a terrible new low that is taking a toll on the nation, dividing people along fault lines we haven’t seen in decades.
John McCain understood the difference between a politician and statesman. When he openly called out one of his supporters who made a bigoted, anti-Obama comment at a rally during the 2008 election, he set a high standard for conduct on the campaign trail. Instead, the last ten years have seen political dialogue and debate only further inflame what is becoming a nation of enemies rather than ideological opponents.
Unless that changes, we may never again see the likes of McCain’s gracious defense of his opponent, and the country will suffer for it.
The ‘C’ word
Second, Congress, as an institution, has to get back to the business of constructing legislation that actually has a chance of passage, not designing bills that force one side or the other into uncomfortable votes.
For most of America’s history, despite ideological disagreements, both parties came together to legislate for the common good. There are scores of examples.
The Great Compromise of 1787 that gave us proportional representation in the House and equal representation in the Senate. President Harry Truman’s breaking with his party and appointing a Republican to the Supreme Court in a bid for national unity. Republican leader Everett Dirksen’s decision to bring his party on board to join Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It goes on. In 1981, a Democratic House passed President Ronald Reagan’s historic tax cut bill. In 1996, President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich reformed welfare as we knew it. And in 2016, Congress passed the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act, breakthrough legislation that substantially increased funding for NIH biomedical research and Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer “moonshot.”
Cooperation has to come back to Congress because the country has to come first.
Stop the presses
Finally, I don’t like bashing the media, but like it or not, they play a key role in communicating to voters where Congress succeeds or fails. These days, it seems the focus is almost singularly on failures.
An independent voter said to me recently about Congress: “I’m sure they have passed legislation. I just don’t think we’ve heard about it.”
A few years ago, I heard a Republican member describe his experience of co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill to address cancer research. He and his colleagues were proud of their work on meaningful legislation, yet it got zero coverage and zero play back home. At the same moment, another member who had stalled budget legislation and held up the entire governing process was booked on every major network.
When there are bipartisan success stories, the media needs to shine its powerful light on them. That’s the only way to encourage more cooperation and forward progress.
The problems in Congress are bigger than one individual to fix. For things to move in the right direction, it’s going to take people of good will on both sides of the aisle and in the media to rethink the environment they have created.
This can’t be addressed on an episodic basis — it requires systemic change. And perhaps taking to heart the closing words of Henry Kissinger in his touching eulogy for McCain:
“None of us will ever forget that even in his parting, John McCain bestowed on us a much needed moment of unity and renewed faith in the possibilities of America. Henceforth, the country’s honor is ours to sustain.”
Myra Miller contributed to this column.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.