One of my first press conferences as a new member of Congress in 2001 was with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and U.S. representatives, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). We stood on the steps of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace at Gramercy Park in Manhattan, in support of bipartisan campaign reform. It was one of the most intimidating press conferences with which to begin my career.
There he was, John McCain, a true American hero whose courageous service included years as a prisoner of war in what was then North Vietnam, and who eventually rose through the House of Representatives and the Senate to become a pillar of bipartisan campaign finance reform. To me, he was the embodiment of putting nation before self. He spoke and I, as a freshman congressman from New York, smiled in the background, which was fine, because I knew my place.
Now our national politics are so mangled, so perfidious, that President Trump believes he can whip his base of supporters to vote in a midterm election by whipping at McCain. To remind you, McCain had bones broken by his North Vietnamese torturers. Donald Trump received a deferment because of bone spurs in his heels. Oh, the pain!
At a Tennessee Republican rally and at a White House event last week, Trump obliquely criticized McCain for not supporting a Senate bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare, provoking boos from the crowd. Weeks ago, Kelly Sadler, a special assistant to the president in the White House communications office, infamously and offensively joked about not needing McCain’s vote because he is “dying anyway.”
Trump and his party face a deeply challenging midterm election in five months. The existential threat to a president’s party in Congress is low voter turnout and low engagement among base voters. That means Republicans have to take their divided and demoralized base and find ways to energize them, excite them, rally them, and revitalize them.
Today, the energy behind Democrats is nuclear. The energy behind Republicans is somewhere between flatlined and the Mets bullpen. But insulting McCain as a voter turnout strategy? It is a risky strategy.
There are 23 Republican-held districts that were lost by Trump in 2016. These places are populated by Democrats but also by moderate Republicans. These are the McCain Republicans. When the president attacks McCain, he further antagonizes those voters. He might even motivate them to vote for Democratic congressional candidates.
Yet, who cares if the strategy is risky? More important, it is repugnant. It tells every veteran, every prisoner of war, and every service member that their service can be belittled by the partisan spewing of any desperate politician who never joined the military because of achy heels.
We have become accustomed to the putridity of our president. More ominous was the Tennessee crowd that joined the attack on a genuine war hero with hoots and hollers. They have effectively surrendered their claim to be patriots, having succumbed to blind and frothing partisanship.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He is the author of the novel “Big Guns.” Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
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