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What We Can Learn From John McCain's Funeral

The late senator's funeral had an unspoken but vital message for those who still wield power: to not wait until your time is up to speak out.
Senator John McCain.

Senator John McCain.

The late Senator John McCain's funeral has been widely interpreted as a powerful rebuke to Donald Trump's presidency. His funeral was hailed as a bipartisan affair, with both Barack Obama and George W. Bush offering their own eulogies.

However, the funeral had another important message for those who still wield power: to not wait until your time is up to speak out.

McCain's career as a pilot and senator was a long and distinguished one. He was also an outspoken critic against Trump. But did McCain really, as the New York Times suggested, "[get] the last word against Trump"? Yes, McCain did manage to disrespect Trump by making sure the incumbent president couldn't attend the funeral while his predecessors could, and, yes, the eulogies delivered a stern criticism of Trump's style of governance. But McCain is also at least partially responsible for the Trump presidency—a fact that surely complicates the late senator's legacy.

McCain's final mission in this world was to strike a blow against cruel, capricious, and corrupt government. This is entirely admirable. Here are some ideas for things McCain could have done in the few years prior to his passing that might have served this mission better:

Endorse Hillary Clinton in Late 2016

Crazy? Not completely. Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky's book How Democracies Die contains numerous examples of political figures resisting populist candidates who might have helped their party win in the short term but would have damaged the country over time. This includes defeated French conservative candidate François Fillon calling on his party to support Emmanuel Macron last year rather than the authoritarian Marine Le Pen, as well as Austrian conservatives backing of a Green candidate in 2016 to prevent the election of authoritarian Norbert Hofer. Supporting Clinton would have been a difficult move for McCain, but such an endorsement might have siphoned away enough on-the-fence voters to have made the difference.

Endorse an Alternative to Trump in the 2016 Republican Nomination Process

McCain was quick to support his old friend Lindsey Graham's run for the presidency, but McCain never backed anyone else after Graham dropped out in December of 2015. There was still plenty of time for McCain to pick a new champion prior to the Iowa Caucuses, and support for someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio might have made a difference at that point. Enough of McCain's congressional colleagues had also declined to endorse anyone at that point, and they might have followed McCain's lead. Instead, McCain sat back like most of the rest of the Republican establishment (and sat at home during the convention) and largely let Trump's nomination happen.

Run for President

In the early spring of 2016, Republicans were down to a choice between Trump and Senator Ted Cruz. Many Republican insiders were clearly dissatisfied with that choice. What if McCain had decided to announce on May 1st of that year that he was running to offer himself as an alternative? Yes, this would have been highly unorthodox, and it would have been extremely physically and professionally taxing on McCain. But he was one of very few people who could have done this and at least deprived Trump of a majority of convention delegates, possibly producing an actual multi-ballot convention that summer. Maybe it would have resulted in a Trump nomination anyway, or a McCain nomination, or something else completely, but it was one of the only things that could have derailed Trump's delegate accretion at that point.


Obviously McCain did not pursue any of these courses of action. Chances are, he made the same mistake the vast majority of people did in thinking that there was no way Trump would get elected. He likely figured that it was better to keep his party together and suffer through the Trump candidacy.

But that turned out to be a bad bet. As last week's farewells reminded us, McCain was fondly revered by prominent political figures, even by the Republicans whom he occasionally annoyed. He was one of very few people with the name recognition and influence to actually affect the events of 2016.

Today, there are other prominent Republicans with the power to affect political events who might heed a warning from McCain's farewell message. Retiring senators like Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) and Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) have occasionally uttered importantly critical words of Trump, but have been reticent about using their powers in the Senate to slow Trump's agenda or exert leverage over the White House. Others, like Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), have rebuked Trump for his anti-democratic words but have resisted investigating Trump or doing other more aggressive things to protect political institutions.

As moving as McCain's goodbye was, the message to draw from it might be that we should not wait until our funeral to say the things we need to say.