Home / General / Public Officials Should Be Judged By Actions, Not Motives

Public Officials Should Be Judged By Actions, Not Motives


This breakdown of The Vote is hypnotically entertaining, even if (like me) you had already studied the footage like an art history major preparing for a final. Every detail — down to little Marco chewing gum — is perfect.

Given the understandable and in some cases salutary felt need to push back against McCain since delivering the final vote will gives him a disproportionate amount of attention/credit, I think it’s worth making some distinctions. I agree entirely with Josh Holland and Sarah Jones that it’s inappropriate to (unironically) call McCain a hero for the vote. He’s not. Nor, for that matter, are the legislators with much better track records. If there are any heroes in this process, it’s the don’t-call-them-ordinary people who laid their bodies on the line. Protecting major progressive achievements is an inherently collective enterprise, just like passing them — so many moving parts have to fit it always seems like a miracle in retrospect, and it’s never about one person. (This why I’ve never liked calling the ACA “Obamacare” — it writes everybody else out of the story. I think we’d all realize it would be gross to call the Voting Rights Act “LBJRights.”) While we’re here, let me give a shout out to each and every New Hampshiran who could have listened to “Voting for CORPORATE DEMOCRATS is for SQUARES, man” horseshit but instead came out to vote for Maggie Hassan, delivering a 1,000 vote margin that very well may have saved health insurance for more than 20 million people.

But on Twitter I’ve seen a fair amount of people wanting to deny McCain credit for his vote because it was cast for the wrong reasons, of whatever. This is not merely wrong, but actively pernicious. The minor reason is that theater criticism of politicians is a massive bullshit dump, and often the just-so stories don’t really hold up on inspection. One story is that McCain is just a bully paying Trump back for insulting him and/or McConnell for working to kill his signature legislative achievement. The problem with this is that it can’t explain why McCain has been a good Republican solider until now. You can say he wanted to wait until it would be maximally painful, but he could not have known that he would be in position to deliver the death blow to TrumpCare. If, say, Dean Heller had any interest in employment as a United States Senator after 2018, McCain’s vote would have been irrelevant. McCain’s vote was presumably some combination of personal grudges, commitment to the Senate as an institution, terminal illness focusing his concentration on the monstrousness of the bill, and numerous other factors it’s pointless to try to weigh precisely.

But the major reason is that it just doesn’t matter. The material effects of his vote are exactly the same no matter what his motivations are, and the precise ratio of expediency to principle is beside the point. Indeed, the focus on motives rather than actions is exactly the fallacy that gave McCain his unjustified reputation in the first place. I don’t care about why he voted no on HCFA for the same reason I don’t care whether he “really” supports the anti-abortion and anti-LBGT legislation he reliably votes for — because it doesn’t matter. Actions count, motives don’t.

Is McCain a hero for his vote? He’s not. Should we emphasize the 48 Dems who defended the ACA without lying about it and the 2 women in the Republican conference who had their necks out for longer so McCain doesn’t get disproportionate credit? Absolutely. But all 51 votes were necessary to kill this thing, and McCain’s counted the same as everyone else’s. It doesn’t matter why he did it. It matters that he did.

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  • Shantanu Saha

    “If there are any heteros in this process”

    I see what you did there.

    • M Lister

      I mean, I know that a lot of GOP types are in the closet (I personally knew Larry Craig and was friends with one of the kids he acquired to try to keep his closet door locked!) but really, surely there are _some_ heteros in the process here.

      • N__B

        John McCain has, bravely, defended hetero marriage. More than once.

        • tsam100

          At the same time his wife and daughter were publicly campaigning for marriage equality…such a jackass.

        • FMguru

          “More than once”

          Well, that only stands to reason – he’s had more than one marriage.

          • postmodulator

            I spent the whole 2008 campaign kind of bracing myself for some GOP surrogate to say, “Well, Biden’s on his second wife too.”

      • Drew

        I know the stereotype of every homophobe being a closet case is a pernicious one. That said, I’ve long been convinced that Santorum is gay. I mean, there’s disliking homosexuality and LGBT people, and then there’s a guy like Santorum who is *obsessed* with gay sex. I can barely remember hearing him talk about anything else.

        • M Lister

          I felt the same way the times I met Robbie George and John Finnis in person. I’m not usually one for Freudian explanations, but sometimes the high heal, I mean, shoe, fits.

          • Drew

            Not a politician but Orson Scott Card stands out for similar reasons. There’s a scene in one of the Ender series books where young boys gang up on…I think Bean in the shower. There’s a detailed description of how Bean lathered himself up so he would be harder to grip by the naked boys ganging up on him.

            And like if you’re into that, that’s cool so long as said boys are 18. But it made me see his homophobia in a different light.

            • Abigail Nussbaum

              I haven’t read it myself, but in fandom discussions of his increasing wingnuttery, I’ve seen several people report reading an early essay of his whose argument came down to “of course all men want to have sex with other men, that’s just the way it is; and religion exists to prevent us from doing it, because otherwise we’d find gay sex so awesome we’d never stop doing it.”

              Um. No, Orson, that’s more of a you thing.

              • Lurking Canadian

                Yep. I remember that essay. As I have observed before, Card is so obviously closeted it’d be kind of sad if he were not also such a raging asshole.

              • postmodulator

                I had a similar reaction to the Duck Dynasty guy’s gaffe from a few years ago — if you read the original article, he was saying those things because they were a reason not to have sex with other men. Straight men don’t sit around and think up reasons to eschew sex with men; for us, that would waste valuable try-to-have-sex-with-a-woman time.

              • Bruce Baugh

                Here’s one incarnation of it:

                Men and women, from childhood on, have very different biological and social imperatives. They are naturally disposed to different reproductive strategies; men are (on average) larger and stronger; the relative levels of various hormones, the difference in the rate of maturity, and many other factors make it far, far easier for women to get along with other women and men to get along with men.

                Men, after all, know what men like far better than women do; women know how women think and feel far better than men do. But a man and a woman come together as strangers and their natural impulses remain at odds throughout their lives, requiring constant compromise, suppression of natural desires, and an unending effort to learn how to get through the intersexual swamp.


                • Nym w/o Qualities

                  intersexual swamp

                  Ya, ew, gross.

                • Mellano

                  Any homosexual man who can persuade a woman to take him as her husband can avail himself of all the rights of husbandhood under the law.

                  Did Card ever persuade any woman to take him as her husband? I’d guess not, given the persuasive skills on evidence here, but you never know.

            • dhudson2728

              I know this isn’t your intention, but you’re coming perilously close to the “homosexual = pedophile” canard. Evidence suggesting he is a pedophile is not evidence that he is a closeted gay man. (And Ender is 7 or 8 in that scene, so it would certainly be pedophilia.)

              There are other scenes that could be used to suggest OSC is gay, but that one does not (and frankly, I think it’s a bit of reach to see a sexual theme there, its meant to be disturbing for its violence, not its sexuality.)

              Caveat: there is a scene in Ender’s Game where Ender lathers himself up before fighting several boys. If this isn’t the scene you’re talking about, then it must be from one of the books I haven’t read, and I retract my statement.

        • I can barely remember hearing him talk about anything else.

          “I’m sorry, I didn’t think I was going to talk about ‘man on dog’ with a United States senator, it’s sort of freaking me out.”

        • Robbert

          To me, he’ll always be the guy who taught the world that in my country you’re euthanized against your will once you hit 70 or so.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          He almost talked about black people once.

    • Similarly:

      “McCain is just a bully paying Trump back for insulating him.”

      “Bully” is perhaps an unfairly strong criticism. That said, McCain is famously irritable, and being wrapped in rock wool is uncomfortable.

      • sam

        pod save america had an EXCELLENT description of McCain this morning, from his own staffers who adore him:

        “9 parts hero, 1 part troll”. Tommy Vietor was talking to some old McCain staffers in the wake of the vote, and they said that they way he specifically got in McConnell’s face and dragged the whole thing out was very much the “troll” McCain. And being McCain staffers, they loved him for it.

        (I, personally, can take or leave the “9 parts hero” part of the equation, but that people who adore him view him as part troll was endlessly amusing).

        • farin

          “Hero” in the sense that includes Achilles sulking in his tent, Samson massacring a wedding party, and Hamlet sending his childhood friends to their deaths.

      • david spikes

        Who wouldn’t savor the delight of so publicly slipping the shiv to Trump and Yertle?
        But I do believe that it was a combo of terrible bill and the final and complete realization of what GOP hyper partisanship has reduced the Senate to-that pathetic appearance with Graham et. al. probably just crystallized it.

  • sleepyirv

    I think this comes from the intuition this really solidifies the McCain legend to the point it’s now unchallengable. John McCain is going to get a lot of credit for this vote from a historical perspective. People who rightly consider him overrated up to this point probably can hear the Beltway hacks 40 years down the line talking about the good old days when McCain (WITH BRAIN CANCER) stood above party, blah, blah, blah. Whatever. Sometimes the show horse gets the credit of the work horse. It certainly won’t make the top 100 of unfair things this year.

    • addicted4444

      And how does that matter?

      It’s not like McCain wasn’t gonna be lionized anyways (is there any evidence of the last decade and a half that would have changed?).

      So basically the only difference is that the people who lionize him will continue to do so, while those who realize the BS behind his reputation will find a tiny kernel of justification in the McCain legend, which would be too small to affect their estimation of him anyways.

      In return 20mm + people will retain health insurance, tens/hundreds of thousands less people will die, and McCain will possibly be more inclined to work with Dems going forward.

      • sleepyirv

        I’m impressed by how much you missed my point.

    • One thing to remember is that the amount of McCain fetishing we see these days will go away when he retires, will see a big bump at his funeral, and then drop off rapidly. The McCain myth is something that is actively and relentlessly cultivated by McCain. I think historians will not replicate the myth or, indeed, spend a ton of time on it.

      Think Dole.

      • N__B

        There’s a dissertation waiting to be written: “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of McCain-Festishizing Crowds.”

      • twbb

        I don’t know, Reagan’s reputation has been in a steady upward climb.

        • Not among historians.

          And even with Republicans, remember 1) he was a president, they get a lot more focus and 2) there was (is?) a relentless campaign in his favor (some jerks worked to try to get something named after him in every county).

          And of course, Reagan was a far more significant historical and mythic figure.

          Congresscritters lapse in to obscurity pretty quickly. Cf Dole, Gingrich, Tip O’Neill, or Ted Kennedy.

    • Abigail Nussbaum

      To be honest, I think if we get out of this with nothing worse than an ahistorical view of McCain as a statesman who rose above partisanship and single-handedly saved healthcare, we’ll be lucky. Right now we’re already seeing narratives of “oh, for the days of W, when politicians cared about norms and the country.”

  • Drew

    I for one am comfortable giving McCain a tongue bath for this. It’s a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.

    • Helmut Monotreme

      Eew. Not with my tongue. I’m ok with McCain getting praise for defying his party. Here’s hoping it encourages him to do it more often.

      • Drew

        I volunteer as tribute! With what little time he has left, maybe he’ll finally start living up to his reputation.

        • farin

          If McCain wants to use every vote from here to eternity to settle scores and polish his mavericky image by voting with the Democrats, I hope he lives forever and does ten morning shows every Sunday.

          • FMguru

            I hope he does live a long life – when he goes, he’ll be replaced by someone who could very well reverse his AHCA vote and give McConnell the 50+1 margin he needs to destroy insurance for 25 million people.

            The damn bill is still live and could come back into play at any moment.

            • blackbox

              The consensus is that they’re out of time to do it this year and can’t try again even symbolically (only “no” votes can call for another vote), and that this time next year they will be trying to ram through tax reform or another evil plot. The AHCA seems to be dead.

              • Mellano

                And next year will be the middle of election season Nevada, Arizona, Indiana, Wiisconsin, Ohio, etc., not to mention every competitive House race. The various ACA repeal plans have abysmal polling, the last thing GOP is going to want to do is revive the issue when they’re trying to campaign.

              • I’ve seen a steady stream of “they can still do it, the zombie hasn’t been annihilated,” but Slate’s Jim Newell — who was incredibly bearish on the repeal’s failure — indicated that the consensus is correct, which gives me comfort.

            • david spikes

              As a matter of fact Az.’s gov. is a strong health care supporter. Not enough attention has been paid to the call between McCain and Ducey right before the vote.
              Ducey will appoint a conservative-but a health care supporter.

        • david spikes

          The only thing he wants to do before he dies is jump the war budget another 100 billion-I am more than willing to see him utterly chagrined-yay even unto death- by being denied that last cookie.

  • N__B

    There’s an element of behavioralism in this. I don’t truly know what’s in someone else’s mind, but I know how they act. If we can make a recalcitrant group – say, the U.S. Senate – act the way we want, I not only don’t care what they think, I believe their thinking will evolve in the right direction. If they’re all secretly bigots but consistently vote against bigotry, that’s okay with me.

  • Yestobesure

    I get the argument that *judging* motives in this type of situation is flawed, and the quest for pure hearts is bad politics. There’s still a need to understand how key politicians tick and what factors can sway a Yes vote to a No. There are only 100 US Senators, and of them only 52 Republicans. When one breaks good, we should understand why to try to maximize the chances of reproducing that event. Same for trying to get into the head of Anthony Kennedy or John Roberts. Yes there’s too much judging on the internet, but analysis is still useful.

    • McAllen

      We are not McCain’s therapists. We don’t even know him, other than as he appears on the news. We’re not going to be able to do any useful psychoanalysis of him or any other senator.

      • Yestobesure

        I didn’t use the term psychoanalysis. We don’t need to delve into McCain’s subconscious or his childhood to concoct elaborate unverifiable theories.
        We just saw a US Senator do something that most of us didn’t expect. Like Scott, I don’t care to reevaluate the man based on that action. But it can be fruitful to rethink what Mccain cares about, how his relationship to his party is changing (or not), what demands he might make in the future. He’s a guy with some power, why not try to update our mental models of him? For fucks sake, we analyze every tweet and interview of Trump for a look into his motivation and potential behavior, and that’s fine! When you look at history, you don’t just look at a chain of events, you try to understand what made various actors react in the way they did.

    • texasdiver

      I don’t think you can count on replicating this moment. Every issue is different. Tax reform is up next and McCain has never shown the slightest independence from his party on fiscal issues.

      • Yestobesure

        That’s a potentially valid view of his motivation (he follows party line on fiscal issues, and will continue to do so, this a one-off that doesn’t change anything). It’s still analysis.

      • david spikes

        McCain is out with chemo and radiation for the next month, personal experience tells me that at his age he will be out much longer.

        • TopsyJane

          McCain having to leave town worked out nicely for Collins. Instead of Maverick dominating the Sunday talk shows, his absence meant she got to bask in some well-deserved press attention.

    • Bruce Vail

      Yes, this is right.

      It does make a difference whether McCain voted the right way for the right reasons, or whether he voted the right way for the wrong reasons.

      It doesn’t mean anything for last week’s outcome, but it does mean something for the next time a repeal vote comes up — and, trust me, it will come up again. McCain absolutely cannot be relied upon to consistently do the right thing and I sure hope Schumer and the other Democrats are working their asses off to recruit a more reliable Republican vote for the future. Because if we are relying on McCain to hold the line on Obamacare — then we are fucked.

  • texasdiver

    I spent part of my life working in legislative affairs for a Federal agency and so have seen a lot f this first hand. Couple random points.

    1. The name ‘Obamacare” was first coined by Republicans as a slur to denigrate the ACA for their constituents. To their credit, Dems finally came around to owning the term but they certainly didn’t start it or coin it.

    2. There are rarely ever true undecided votes on these kinds of big issues. Almost always when a Senator acts undecided it is for a strategic reason of some sort. Usually they want the attention or want to see what extra deals they can extract for the vote they had almost certainly already decided their position on. Senators who declare their votes early want to avoid the drama, Senators who hold out until the end are seeking it. So I would suggest that Collins and Murkowski are probably not seeking a lot of praise for their votes, especially Murkowski. She punched her ticket early so as not to be the deciding vote. Not saying that McCain wasn’t truly undecided. But I expect he basically knew what he was going to do before he even got on the plane. The details of how the exact measures and votes evolved those two days was fluid, but I expect he knew the final result he was looking for.

    • texasdiver

      To follow up. There are always lots of undecided votes on more minor issues or stuff that a particular Senator doesn’t really care about because it pertains to a different region of the country or something. They are always willing and eager to wheel and deal their votes and exchange favors on that sort of thing. But for these major seminal once in a decade votes that is mostly not the case.

    • Joe Paulson

      “To their credit, Dems finally came around to owning the term”

      Not sure how much ‘credit’ there should be given here. Realistically, if you can’t fight a name, including some nickname that isn’t that charming, you sometimes just accept it.

      But, the term is misleading and if possible, I rather them have found a way to get the usual suspects, including the media, deem it a disparaging or partisan term, not in effect just another neutral name for the legislation. President Obama: “you have these people use the term “Obamacare.” Hey man, I appreciate the props, but it’s not my legislation. It’s for everyone. If anything, call it Harry Reidcare.” etc.

      • texasdiver

        By “to their credit” I meant they finally stopped putting their heads down and cringing about anything to do with the ACA and finally started owning the legislation. The name was already stuck and nothing could be done about that. But by owning it they eventually turned it from a negative to a positive I think

        • Joe Paulson

          “To their credit, Dems finally came around to owning the term but they certainly didn’t start it or coin it.”

          I did not take this reference to “the term” to be a matter of “anything to do with the ACA” but the term (“Obamacare”) itself.

          How much it had stuck (like other dubious words such as references to “Democrat legislation” or something instead of “Democratic” — people call that out with reason) is unclear and don’t think there was some need for them to aid and abet the process of usage as much as occurred.

        • Cheap Wino

          It was going to become popular on the basis of what Pelosi was saying, that Americans would like it once they really found out what it would do for them. But your point, that dems started taking ownership of the legislation, is correct. The Rs made a typically hubristic mistake, Obama was popular so attaching his name to it was only going to work as a negative for the rabid base.

      • Deborah Bender

        Although the Republicans’ intent was malicious, I never saw a problem with Democrats accepting the term. The only other brief way to refer to the law was an unmemorable acronym.

        Obama is going to be the most famous Democratic President for the several generations born since the Baby Boom, on account of being the first AA to hold the office. The name is going to be a recurrent reminder that the Democrats get the credit for this. If/when the exchanges are stabilized and the premiums for middle income people go down, the Republicans are going to be sorry they gave Obama the credit.

        • Joe Paulson

          I figure there are various ways to briefly refer to a law other than a misleading (it sounds like “Medicare” but it is not Medicare; it is both less and more than that) partisan term that as Scott notes makes what should be a universal about one individual.

          I find “the health care law” pretty simple enough. “ACA” is pretty easy to remember. “The Affordable Care Act” isn’t too long to say. If those aren’t great, figure something out not originally used by Republicans, crafty types, as a term of disparagement.

          Past presidents are quite famous without having legislation named after them. LBJ didn’t need to have his legislative accomplishments named after him. And, there he played a more central role. “Obamacare” in a small way advances green lanternism. It makes it about Obama, not the Democrats in the House and Senate. Or, in general.

          Giving Obama credit has value but to me it is more useful not to make major policy about one person. Easier to sell to the country at large, including people who don’t actually like Obama. Those on the edge will think “Obamacare,” a fantasy caricature.

          Such is my thinking though I realize some disagree.

          • Deborah Bender

            I’m not suggesting that naming major legislation after presidents should be a regular practice. I think giving Obama name credit is fair in this case, because he chose to give affordable medical care his top first term domestic priority apart from dealing with the financial meltdown, knowing that the amount of political capital he would have to spend would make it impossible to get other things done that he cared about. Having made that decision, he worked hard on passing it for a long time, and succeeded where the Clintons failed.

            My point about Obama’s fame is not that the ACA makes him more famous, but the opposite: Obama’s fame ensures that the Democratic Party will get the credit for the ACA for the next thirty years. Consequently, if the major defects of the ACA are fixed, the moniker that the GOP fastened on the ACA is going to put the Democratic Party in a favorable light for voters.

            • Joe Paulson

              Not sure how different it is overall than other cases where presidents specifically focused on something and it wasn’t named after them.

              The last point notes that the Democrats will get credit off Obama’s fame, but “Obamacare” most directly to me would seem not to be about “Democrats” but Obama specifically. But, Democrats, not just Obama, created the thing. I’m wary about making major acts like this so much about one person.

              If the “major defects” (hmm) are fixed, “Obamacare” can help the Democrats, but like fixing “Medicare,” the overall enterprise can be easier if the label isn’t so partisan. “Obamacare” is largely a fictional concept in the minds of many that something more neutral might not be. So, the benefits to me come with a cost.

              • Deborah Bender

                I referred to the specific defects I have in mind upthread: stabilizing the exchanges and lowering the out of pocket insurance costs for middle income people. The latter depends on some combination of subsidies and reducing waste, fraud and abuse (e.g., lowering drug prices, limiting compensation of insurance executives and pressing on with various reforms already underway in hospital practices).

                I won’t argue against the benefits coming with a cost. It’s a glass half full thing. The Democrats didn’t name the thing Obamacare. It’s a fait accompli.

  • keta

    The “watch the show” comment to reporters prior to the vote and the grandstanding Romanesque thumbs-down gesture at the front of the Senate floor both tell me that despite John McCain doing the right thing in this instance he’s still a giant egotistical asshole who is more emblematic of what’s wrong with American pols than what’s right.

    (But I will note this – if the thumbs-down gesture was a direct “fuck you” to Trump’s favourite gesticulation, then kudos for that.)

    • McAllen

      But that’s fine if it leads him to vote the right way on this bill. It’s not like I have to invite him over to dinner.

      • keta

        Oh, agreed.

    • farin

      If I were in a position to publicly tear out Mitch McConnell’s heart like that, there’s no way I wouldn’t.

    • Ithaqua

      It was more a “fuck-you” to McConnell and his destruction of Senate norms in an attempt to get this passed, IMO.

  • drdick52

    Agree with this completely. I would go a bit further and point out that we can never really know what motivates anyone. All we can actually see is what they do and it is their actions that we should judge them on. I give McCain shit because he consistently talks a good game and then votes the way the GOP leadership wants.

    • we can never really know what motivates anyone.

      Right. All we know about people’s motives is what they say about them, and often people lie about or don’t even know what it is that makes them do what they do.

  • I’m more than happy to give all three Republican senators full credit and bounteous public accolades for stopping this thing. And I’m willing to bet there are many other Republican senators and representatives who are also grateful for those three votes.
    In the last hours, it was pretty clear (at least to me) that many were voting for it out of lemming-like momentum.

    • Cheap Wino

      “. . . Republican senators and representatives who are also grateful for those three votes.”

      Fuck them. They voted for people to die. There’s no equivocating available on this.

  • mds

    It doesn’t matter why he did it.

    Well, without “becoming his therapist,” or whatever, I think it could matter why. It mainly matters to his colleagues who want to influence him, of course. But more generally, I would think that clues to a politician’s motives could be useful in determining how and whether to allocate public effort. Since it failed 49-51, who amongst the Yes votes is voting that way because they’re a lemming, who’s doing it out of fanaticism, and who’s doing it because there were already enough votes against it? Who’s “gettable”?

    • Joe Paulson

      Scott’s piece can be mostly correct while there still be some use at times to determine motives, including as a way to obtain support. This can matter after the fact. But, ultimately, it often does not big picture. So, yes, would emphasize “could.”

  • Joe Paulson

    I continue to be annoyed by the name “Obamacare,” which after all was used by Republicans in a disparaging way and it not being about one person [to the degree it is about a person or institution, it is more a matter of the Senate] is a major reason why. There are others, but its limiting of what should be a universal thing (like “Medicaid”) to a partisan label tied to one person is major.

    My favorite in that video is the clerk who is laughing at the desk — she seems to be having a good time.

    • sanjait

      Same. In my personal style guide, ACA is the proper term in all contexts, and “Obamacare” is only to be used in reply to someone else’s immediate use of the term, and then always in scare quotes.

      • “Obamacare” is only to be used in reply to someone else’s immediate use of the term, and then always in scare quotes.

        When you use a term X “in reply to someone else’s immediate use of the term”, then—like it or not—you are quoting them, and if your reply is written (and in a formal register) then you should put quotation marks around the quoted material, and those quotation marks are not (or at least, not only) “scare quotes.”

        Of course, in speech (among sighted people) so-called “air quotes” do have the “scare quote” function, while direct quotation is indicated (if at all) by various intonational, gestural, or verbal mechanisms, for instance, by using “quote”/”unquote” (with or without accompanying “air quotes”),

        Note that in writing quotation marks have yet other functions, one of which—the marking of a segment of text as jargon (or slang, and/or a term being defined either explicitly or by context)—I have used above.

        • demitallanyway

          Good example of air quotes that I will never forget, having watched it in real time: McCain putting “health” of the mother in air quotes (the topic was abortion) during a presidential debate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfXO_xRdGN

  • Hmmmm.

    Consider two reasons for trying to determine the motive of a vote:

    1) to assess the praisrworthiness of the vote (typically with the intent to give or withhold praise)

    2) to build or update a predictive model of the voter

    The problem with the former is that it encourages a highly interior focus, e.g. assessing what’s in their heart of hearts. And since the evidence is almost always thin to nonexistent on this, these assessments tend to merely replicate ex ante attitudes toward the person.

    Working toward 2 is pretty essential. The common (shared by me) “McCain will talk a talk he will never walk” model proved to be wrong here. One important question is how much of an outlier this vote is and what it might signal.

    In the best case, we might see a move from hyperpartisan (pass on R votes alone) to rather partisan (pass with D votes but need a majority of the Rs) maybe even to a bi partisan (don’t quite need a majority of Rs in every case).

    • McAllen

      If we’re not able to predict the vote of one of the most well known and discussed politicians in America, how good of a predictive model are we going to be able to build?

      • Predictive models esp of people are never error free. The question is how to update the model.

        The casual question is whether McCain is going to try to push back on hyperpartisanism. If so, he will make a series of such votes. If not, he’ll regress to his norm as a reliable partisan.

        If so, we’ll also see him endorse some bills crafted with D input or calculated to win some D votes.

        I’m personally sticking with the regression but with less confidence than before.

        • mds

          I don’t necessarily see him going the actual bipartisan legislation route anymore, but now that he’s the being hailed as the hero of the hour for killing off this repeal push, I suspect he’ll be slightly less inclined to support taking the issue back up again before reconciliation expires. He’s presumably much more invested in the defense bill, for example.

          • DJ

            I agree. Whatever his motivation were, it doesn’t make much sense now for him to sit aside while McConnell takes up yet another version of repeal under reconciliation. I don’t see how he can say anything other than “Bring it up under regular order if you want my vote.” And that means that if reconciliation is still on the table, McConnell needs either Collins or Murkowski to turn to a yes vote, while keeping all the rest of the caucus in line. Call me naive, but I don’t see that happening. Which means it’s dead, Jim.

        • McAllen

          The casual question is whether McCain is going to try to push back on hyperpartisanism. If so, he will make a series of such votes. If not, he’ll regress to his norm as a reliable partisan.

          But there’s no way for us to predict this. The only way we’re going to be able to tell is to see how he votes after this.

          • Murc

            Except that we have to try to predict it, because what McCain’s actual motives and beliefs are is intensely relevant to whether and how political pressure needs to applied to him and, if so, what sorts will work.

            • McAllen

              Not being from Arizona, my ability to apply political pressure to McCain is basically nil, and if I were from Arizona my ability to apply pressure would consist of calling his office and showing up at town halls, which would be good ideas regardless of his motivations

          • Er.. there is a way for us to predict this…we can say, “He’s going to regress to the mean”.

            The only way we’re going to be able to tell is to see how he votes after this.

            This is the only way to judge the accuracy of any prediction.

            I’m confused…we are talking about highly unreliable predictive modes that include an interventional component. But it doesn’t mean that it’s wholly fruitless.

            • McAllen

              When you predict that he’s going to regress to the mean, what are you basing that prediction on? Some insight into his mind, or how he’s voted in the past?

              • Primarily his past record? I mean, I don’t think speculation on motives and beliefs are strong indicators of voting patterns. I would imagine they are more useful for people like Schumer or McConnell because they have a lot more data.

                • McAllen

                  Then I don’t think we disagree. All I’m saying is that in trying to predict a politician’s votes, it’s going to be far more useful to look at their voting record than to try and suss out the motivation for their vote.

                  EDIT: I can see that my previous comments were pretty unclear. When I said there’s not way for us to predict McCain’s future votes, I should have said based on his motivation. His voting record can certainly help us predict his future votes.

                • Oh yeah, I agree. I just don’t think it’s irrational to use motivation (if one is careful; many such uses are irrational because people overvalue their psychological models). The further from being a whip counter, the less data and less reliable those additions are.

      • mds

        “John McCain is not to be relied on” isn’t an entirely useless predictive model.

        • McAllen

          But it’s not a model based on his motivation, it’s based on his pattern of voting.

    • Pseudonym

      Agreed in principle, but I think the issue is that most people aren’t looking at the vote that way in practice. I haven’t read any commentary that emphasizes the distinction between McCain occasionally succumbing to bouts of heroic altruism versus McCain occasionally succumbing to piques of petty vindictiveness as a way to predict his future actions. I think the evidence strongly points to the latter explanation (with campaign finance reform, brief resistance to W’s early initiatives, and now this payback to Trump’s insulation being the only mavericky actions of his I can remember offhand), but I don’t think there are enough data points available on the details of McCain’s personal motivations to build a more robust predictive model than one that just looks at his votes.

  • LeeEsq

    The people who really care about the motivations of politicians in addition to their actions have a really bad case of idealism. They have a definite idea of how the world should look at least on some things and definite ideas on why the world should look this way. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is seen as type of corruption to them at best.
    Another reason why motivation is really important to some people is that they hate “johnny come latelies” coming in for the final push after a lot of work has been done while the pure people with the right motivation don’t get much or any credit at all.

  • Zytor-LordoftheSkies

    I agree, you shouldn’t “celebrate” a vote when it comes from a moral monster like John McCain. As one of the vilest creatures every to slither across the murky bottom of the Senate — a body known almost exclusively for the ghastly, horrid monsters who dwell within it — he deserves no praise at all. One ought, however, to heartily cheer on the cancer that will, one can only pray, at last free us all from his blood-stained hands.

    • Anna in PDX

      Yikes! I thought I had a pretty harsh view of him… Are you a demigod like Snarki child of Loki? Do you have plans for him in the afterlife?

      • s_noe

        I’m guessing “Patron Demigod of People Who Seem Like Fun At Parties Until, Suddenly, They Say Something Unambiguously Horrible.”

    • Geo X

      Well, no, you SHOULD celebrate a vote that will save many lives, no matter where it comes from. I mean, I’m not saying I’m suddenly a big fan of the man, but being all hyperbolic about how awful he is isn’t a compelling counterargument.

      • JKTH

        This is a commenter who presumably wants McCain to die quickly so a nutjob white supremacist can take his place.

  • NewishLawyer

    How much of this is because we live in an age of weak parties and strong partisanship? Or in other words, a lot of Democrats are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore?

    I think the denizens of this blog were ahead of the curve when it came to hating big media on the left-side but the rest of the regular Democratic Party voters are quickly catching up as the media keeps on getting caught with their pants down in the Trump years.

    Another aspect is that a lot of Democrats (especially younger ones who don’t remember the ass-kickings of the 1970s-1994) are really pissed off at the Republicans and everything they stand for. Strong Partisanship is going to lead to motives mattering.

    I agree that it is dangerous because motives matter is what lead the GOP into constant crazy land but I can see why it is happening.

    Someone here (rovingyouthpastor?) once commented that the ideal state of liberal to left politics is inherently unpolitical. I see this all the time because there are a whole lot of essays from the center-left along the lines of “Issue X should not be a partisan issue.” Issue X can be anything from Climate Change to Women’s Healthcare (or access to healthcare in general) to Parental Leave to Education/College Tuition, etc. But I never see the essays try to analyze why these things are partisan issues. The right wing will always have an advantage because they see everything as a partisan issue and this makes them more ax and battle ready. The left seems to constantly just say “Really? Again? Time to throw in the towel, guys” but the right-wing will try again and again for their ultimate goals.

    So perhaps motive searching is the left equivalent of being battle ready?

    • LeeEsq

      Motivation has always been important to many voters. A lot of abolitionists were luke warm to Lincoln because they didn’t see him as having the right motivations. There are examples of this on the Right to. A lot of people don’t like the idea of a politician doing something because it will get the politician votes in the next election and some hero worship in the media and public. They find this sort of behavior disgusting.

      • Murc

        A lot of abolitionists were luke warm to Lincoln because they didn’t see him as having the right motivations.

        They were lukewarm on him because they didn’t feel that he’d expend sufficient amounts of political capital and take personal and political risks in favor of their goals. This is a legitimate thing to worry about!

    • Deborah Bender

      “Issue X should not be a partisan issue” is frequently wrong because, whether the judgement underlying this opinion is based on ethical or good-government grounds, it is dismissive of the interests of the opposing groups.

      Sometimes the opponents are opposing because they don’t want to give your side a win, and sometimes because they are selfish, and sometimes because they are awful people, but sometimes they have a legitimate interest. Assuming out of hand that they don’t makes it more difficult to reach an agreement.

  • sanjait

    It could be useful to try to understand politicians’ motives. It’s how we know, for example, that Donald Trump would be actively horrible as a president before he had any record as a politician and when his stated policy positions were largely inconsistent gibberish.

    But in usual practice, the judging is a less than useful practice. It doesn’t lead to insight, it leads to the false perception of having real insight. It’s a way for reporters to make political news more entertaining and for low information voters to feel like they have an understanding of current events when they really don’t. Actual policy issues get subverted by character drama and spurious conjecture.

    The 2016 election cycle seems illustrative of both.

  • sibusisodan

    It’s fascinating watching the video from the UK. Senate voting seems to be set up to permit that kind of theatrical moment which has no parallel in a lobby-voting system.

    • s_noe

      Don’t get that excited – it rarely happens! (Someone on WNYC’s “On the Media” show this weekend looked back; he didn’t think there had been an uncertain Senate vote since 2008, one of the bailout votes.)

  • randykhan

    Two side notes on this – First, after watching it seems pretty clear that the Dems knew what the vote would be, given the nudges and craning of necks to see McCain stick the shiv into McConnell.
    Second, that Schumer gesture to cut off the applause is classic, and was remarkably effective. He’s got control of his caucus.

  • “If there are any heteros in this process, it’s the don’t-call-them-ordinary people who laid their bodies on the line.”

    There may be a typo in that sentence. (mid 2nd para)

    • Anna in PDX

      Ha ha, came here to mention that, it’s one of the neatest typos I have seen.

    • s_noe

      You shall know them by their autocorrections, I always say.

    • Deborah Bender

      Another one: “paying Trump back for insulating him”

  • Steve LaBonne

    I give him credit, but I give Collins and Murkowski more credit.

  • Wm Kiernan

    I’m reasonably grateful to McCain for voting against that latest piece of garbage, pretty much to the same degree as I am grateful to the other fifty senators who did the same. But if I were a dedicated old-school Republican I’d be vastly grateful, because imagine your party trying to campaign in 2018 and 2020 against “They slashed Medicaid, ruthlessly causing tens of thousand of poor and working-class Americans to die prematurely, all so they could hand out a $700-billion tax cut to millionaires and billionaires.”

  • Anna in PDX

    Personally I have always had McCain’s number and am glad that he has used his spiteful, vengeful, nasty personality as a force for good for once. I’ll call him a hero for it, sure. Whatever. I’m just glad to see that he can stick a shiv in his party like that. Gives me great joy.

  • Michael Cain

    McCain was also the third Republican vote (along with Collins and Graham) against overturning the EPA’s methane rule earlier this year. That rule imposed tighter restrictions on methane and VOC emissions by drillers operating on federal lands (primary impact in the West). The rule is modeled on regulations adopted in Colorado and Wyoming for state and private lands, and is supported by large majorities of voters according to polls in the Mountain West. While I suspect there’s some image polishing going on (how will Arizonans remember me?), I’m with Scott and care much less about motivation than about getting policy right.

    • Deborah Bender

      I missed that vote. Good to know.

  • DAS

    Thank you for this post. The attitude that politicians should be “brave” and not “pander” to voters is a bugaboo of mine … I find it antithetical to democratic republicanism, and certainly it’s not how Hamilton and James “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” Madison thought the republic should work.

    • Rob in CT

      There’s a balance to be struck here. For things to work reasonably well, we neither want rigid ideologues nor completely amoral hacks awaiting the latest polls (or kickbacks) to determine their vote.

      But we’ve got to be willing to take “yes” for an answer and be reasonably gracious when it happens.

      “John McCain cast the right vote, in spite of tremendous pressure from his party leadership. Good for him.”

      No slobbering required (others will go ahead and do that for us anyway).

  • Damon Poeter

    I’m seeing some weird tack by purity ponies where they kinda credit McCain for his vote but move quickly to an ‘it doesn’t matter anyway because everything still sucks and health care is inevitably going away at some point in the near future’ stance. I’m very mixed because I agree that there’s lots to still fix in this country and lots of stuff is only held in a precarious position but Jesus fucking Christ, why can’t we ever acknowledge actual wins? Why is there this notion floating around in segments of the Left that our ongoing efforts, instead of ever landing us in a Progressive Utopia where we can all just relax and enjoy pure socialism and its fruits, will always be a Forever War where we sometimes scratch out quantifiable victories, sometimes hold the line to preserve existing programs, and sometimes can only manage to live and fight another day?

    • Rob in CT

      Why is there this notion floating around in segments of the Left that this effort, instead of ever landing us in a Progressive Utopia where we can all just relax and enjoy pure socialism and it’s fruits, will always be a Forever War where we sometimes scratch out quantifiable victories, sometimes hold the line to preserve existing programs, and sometimes can only manage to live and fight another day?

      Because reality (the foreverwar) is depressing? It means constant effort just to hold the line, let alone improve things, and that… sucks.

      This is not a defense. It’s an explanation.

      • DAS

        There are people who actually are quite inspired by the Forever War. For example, many reactionaries are proud to be 101st Fighting Keyboard Kommandos on the front lines of a culture war (and to hear them talk, there are left-leaning folks who also are really excited by the Forever War, but I suspect that is mainly projection). Being part of Forever War can provide much needed engagement and motivation for some activists, but that motivation seems to work better for right-wingers than for those of us who are left of center.

      • Damon Poeter

        It sucks but it’s also the grownup understanding of the nature of the way things woik

        • Rob in CT


  • Murc

    Actions count, motives don’t.

    With respect, Scott, I disagree.

    Motives always matter. They might not matter for some specific things like assigning credit, but they still do matter in a broad sense.

    There are one hundred United States Senators, 435 members of the House of Representatives, a president, and thousands and upon tens of thousands state and local elected officials. Their motives for seeking to gain and exercise power absolutely matter, because there’s only a finite amount of time, money, and energy in the world. Whether a political figure is acting in ways you find ideologically congenial because you forced them to do so, because they actually believe in it, or because they find it nakedly self-serving is deeply important when it comes to the allocation of resources and the forming of political alliances, and also to deciding whether it would be a good idea to elevate these political actors to positions where your leverage over them is lessened or eliminated.

    This matters. It matters a lot. A politician who is actively going to take risks and expend a ton of their time and energy on something because they really, truly believe in it is someone you don’t need to waste resources on and is an ally and a friend. A politician who will only act on issues if forced to might be an ally, but they’re also a resource sink, and this requires one to consider things like “can we replace them with someone who ISN’T a resource sink? Is them being a resource sink on this one issue balanced out by them going to the mat for us on other issues they’re genuinely intrinsically motivated on? What happens if our leverage disappears?”

    Politicians are people. They’re not ciphers. They usually get into politics, which if you’re not a legacy admission like GWB, is a terribly awful and difficult business to get into that taxes your wallet, your intellect, and your soul, because they’re highly internally motivated. Those motivations matter for the purpose of analyzing them as politicians and as potential political allies or enemies across a multitude of spectrums.

    • McAllen

      But the public can’t tell what issues are important to politician outside their voting behavior.

      • Murc

        But the public can’t tell what issues are important to a politician outside their voting behavior.

        This just isn’t true. There are a lot of other factors to consider beyond just how they voted. Did they have to be heavily lobbied and/or bought off for that vote, or were they the ones lobbying others and proactively calling activist groups to say “how can we work together?” Is the issue one that has a lot of salience to their home state but not a lot of national salience, such that if they’re “promoted” out of said home state they might flip around on it? Etc.

        Example: Joe Biden. Nobody seriously thought he was still going to be given the financial service industry handjobs when he became Vice President, or if he ever became President. However, his voting record during his time in Congress absolutely did not strongly support that conclusion; there’s a reason he was called the Senator from MBNA.

        But there were other actions and information aside from just his voting record that led people to believe he wasn’t motivated by a true belief in upholding the credit card industry, and so would act differently if their leverage over him was removed.

        Voting matters. It is far from the only thing that matters.

    • I agree in a technical sense that motivations matter, but we don’t know what motivates people, we only know what they say about their motivations. And people lie about their motivations, or sometimes don’t even know what they are. Only by an accumulation of observable acts can one start to divine a person’s motivations.

      ETA: McAllen beat me to it, and said this with more economy.

      • Murc

        Only by an accumulation of observable acts can one start to divine a person’s motivations.

        I don’t disagree with this at all, but that is, in fact, as you said, an admission that motivations do matter.

        • But if a politician has accumulated enough observable acts that are in the public good, or that match (or approximate) one’s own policy preferences, then we’re back to “motivation doesn’t matter,” aren’t we?

          For “Victim of motivation is everything” thinking, “Clinton, Hilary.”

        • Justin Runia

          But it’s the same time sink, right? If motivations matter as an issue of efficiency, then you’re stuck with a time sink on either the front end or the back end. So, a more correct formulation would be, motivations are useful, until they aren’t.

    • mds

      Their motives for seeking to gain and exercise power absolutely matter,
      because there’s only a finite amount of time, money, and energy in the

      I couldn’t have said it better myself … and I tried to, earlier in the thread. :-P

      Regardless, I’ll actually agree with folks that focusing on voting records tends to be dispositive, especially in our current polarized environment. Yet to me McCain’s voting record would suggest that he’d back skinny repeal, all else being equal. So something in his motivations was relevant to his breaking with his own pattern. Similarly, Murkowski’s motives could matter going forward. The Trump administration actually overtly threatened her state over this. GOP partisans have been about as abusive as one would expect. I would be interested to know if any resentment over this could be exploitable, even if only at the level of an AK resident or a Senate minority leader.

      There’s also the case of Arlen Specter. His own inimitable mercenary style meant (1) his party identification was for sale in the first place; and (2) as far as I ever saw, he stayed bought, pretty much voting the D line even after he was primaried out. The soundness of Reid making that deal with him absolutely hinged on motivations.

      On the other hand, working on Heller apparently turned out to be a fool’s game. Should we have realized this based on his largely lockstep right-wing voting history? But that would only be dispositive if we thought he was ideologically committed to being a reactionary shit. Otherwise, the incentives on this particular vote would be different. (See also: Capito.)

  • Pseudonym

    I endorse this sentiment.

    I think the most pernicious aspect of focusing on McCain’s motivations is that it feeds into the broader problem of covering politicians like media or sports celebrities and politics like horse races, keeping the spotlight on our political representatives while ignoring the people they’re representing.

    • allin58

      This is what happens in the Presidential race. The media focuses so much on the candidates the issues get left behind and it just becomes popularity contest: Trump or Clinton; not the DNC platform vs. the GOP platform.
      If you look at those platforms the difference is staggering! But that’s not what happens.

  • Rob in CT

    Regarding the ACA and its faults (real & imagined), I was just wondering…

    Did/do people bang on about how inadequate FLMA is? Just curious. Seems like another law that is both a) an improvement from the status quo ante; and b) less than perfect.

    • Howard_Bannister

      I think FMLA is lower down the chain, because all the noise I’ve heard in the last few cycles is about the need to create some federal rules regarding paid sick leave.

      • Rob in CT

        I guess I’m thinking more about when it was originally passed. Back in 1993, was there a bunch of whining about how inadequate it was?

        • Howard_Bannister

          Well, I wasn’t at all tuned in to politics then, so I’ll have to defer to somebody else on that.

          • Rob in CT

            Right, neither was I (I was in high school).

        • Aaron Morrow

          I believe that was the same bill that Bush vetoed twice, which is why it went from being reintroduced to being a law in a month.
          Signing it was a major election promise from Clinton, who I can assure you was the recipient of whining in 1992 about how inadequate his policies were. (Tsongas was to the right of Clinton fiscally, whereas I still remember being really annoyed at Brown for trying to make a flat tax happen.)

  • deggjr

    Why was McConnell standing where he was and staring at Senators when they voted? Was he acting out the Kefauver hearing scene from Godfather II or does he always stand there?


    • texasdiver

      My understanding of what happened is that McCain was out of the chamber when they actually called his name and then when he walked back into the chamber he had to walk up to the front to catch the eye of the clerk to give his vote by hand signal out of turn since he wasn’t sitting at his desk speaking into a mic like the rest of them during the roll call.

      As for where McConnell usually stands, I have no idea. I expect this was unusual because normally for 99% of the votes in the Senate the outcome is already pre-ordained so little or no need for on the floor drama or arm twisting.

  • petesh

    The Buzzfeed piece was delightful and I’m thankful for the link. But isn’t it time to switch the amateur psychologizing to a more current target, f’instance John Kelly?

  • McCain’s no hero, but he is to be saluted for his vote, which came as a surprise to me and to most of us. Some may say that politicians shouldn’t be applauded for Doing the Right Thing but the 48 yea votes for last week’s legislative travesty attacking access to health care show that mere decency is not to be taken for granted when it comes to elected officials.

    I salute all of those who ‘ve beaten back the legislative assaults so far.

  • lawguy

    It reminded me of the scene from “Terminators” where after the survivalist couple had killed one of the monsters, the Kevin Bacon character turns and asks: “Does this mean I can’t make fun of their life style any more?”

    • JustRuss

      You mean “Tremors”? I enjoyed that movie more than I expected to.

      • lawguy

        Yes, Tremors, sigh,

  • david spikes

    Well at least Yertle didn’t stamp his foot.

  • priceyeah

    My interpretation of McCain’s vote is that he was so disgusted with the legislative process lately that he contrived to destroy the repeal effort in a way that would, as much as possible, get the GOP off its current track of demagoguery and towards a more cooperative bipartisan practice. Insofar as that is the case, the word “hero” is not misplaced. If his thinking was entirely limited to the repeal bill etc., then yeah, I agree with you.

  • ForkyMcSpoon

    I enjoy the twits on Twitter who were scolding the Democrats for being nice to McCain upon his return to the Senate last week (applauding him, giving him hugs).

    Being nice to someone with a recent brain cancer diagnosis proves that Democrats are neoliberal scum, or something (never mind that Bernie Sanders also hugged McCain). I pointed out that McCain was someone who occasionally voted against his party, and being callous towards him after a cancer diagnosis was unlikely to benefit Democrats in any way, you might get his vote on something even if it wasn’t the healthcare bill… I was told there was no way you’d get McCain’s vote on anything. Yeah, I’m going to say that being gratuitously assholish to McCain would’ve been the wrong move.

    Anyway, in conclusion, one side is trying to take health care away from tens of millions, and the other side was nice to a cancer patient they know personally, so both sides are the same.

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