Where Was McCain?

The senator’s a no-show on the stimulus-package vote

Yesterday, the proposed economic stimulus package drafted by Senate Democrats—which added $44 billion in extra benefits for low-income seniors, disabled veterans, and the unemployed to a recovery plan to send rebate checks to 100 million Americans—was blocked by a Republican filibuster. “In a suspenseful showdown vote that capped days of partisan infighting and procedural jockeying,” wrote CNN Money, “eight Republicans—four of them up for re-election this year—joined Democrats to back the plan, bucking GOP leaders and President Bush, who objected to the costly add-ons.” The final tally was fifty-eight to forty-one, one vote shy of the sixty needed to keep the plan in consideration for a final Senate vote. (The initial vote was fifty-nine to forty; according to The New York Times’s account, “the majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, switched his vote to no from yes at the last second, a parliamentary move that lets him control the next steps on the bill.”) Okay, so fifty-eight plus forty-one…that’s ninety-nine of the Senate’s one hundred members voting on the measure.

The lone no-show? John McCain.

The senator’s absence was noted in mainstream publications’ accounts of last night’s vote; both The New York Times and The Washington Post mentioned it in their pieces about the stimulus package’s failure this morning. At the same time, though, those mentions were buried and generally glossed over in their respective articles. Here’s the Post, in the seventh graph of its A1 story:

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president, did not show up for the vote. Asked about his time away from the Senate, McCain, who was heading back to Washington aboard his campaign plane, said: “It’s very hard. Obviously, I’ve missed a lot of votes. There’s no doubt about it.”

And here’s the Times, in the seventh and eighth graphs of its A20 story:

Senator John McCain of Arizona, the leading Republican presidential candidate, returned to Washington fresh off his string of victories in Tuesday’s voting, but he did not appear in the Senate chamber and did not vote. Adding to the partisan rancor, Democrats immediately questioned his whereabouts and seemed poised to blame him personally, and Republicans generally, for stalling the bill.

Aides to Mr. McCain said that he would have sided with the Republican leaders and that his vote was not needed.

For the papers to treat McCain’s absence in this way is fair enough; it’s not, nor should it be, the point of the package-stalling story. Still, the articles’ glossing of the McCain information—the Post’s acceptance of “I’ve missed a lot of votes” as an explanation for his absence yesterday, the Times’s recitation of the “his vote was not needed” cop-out—is indicative of a bigger issue: McCain’s privileged position with a political press that seems to scrimp on accountability when it comes to the now-nearly-inevitable GOP front-runner. As we’ve noted before, this is a trend with McCain. He’s spent months shoring up his relationship with the press—and seems now to be abusing that relationship, taking for granted that he can get away with skipping Senate votes or flagrantly misconstruing rivals’ records or even more flagrantly rewriting history. (Remember the press’s rampant criticism of Senator Clinton when she skipped voting on the Feingold amendment last December? Same situation as yesterday’s vote; different candidate.)

It’s understandable, of course, why McCain would want to skip the vote; positional vagueness, as much and as long as it can be preserved, is almost always in candidates’ interests. (Of the ten senators who have missed the most votes in the 110th Congress, according to The Washington Post, six have been running for president.) It’s also true that McCain probably would have toed the GOP party line last night; as ABC News’s Jake Tapper reported, the senator “supports the version negotiated by President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., not the Senate Democrats’ version.” If that’s true, then the unnamed aide from the Times story is correct; McCain’s vote wouldn’t have made a difference yesterday.

Which is very much beside the point. A vote, after all, is more than just a vote; it’s an on-the-record declaration that expresses the choice a legislator has made on behalf of his or her constituents. A “yea” or “nay” uttered on the Senate floor is a single-syllabled nugget of accountability, a documentary record to which a legislator, for better or for worse, can be held. And to which, more importantly, he should be held. The McCain campaign can announce, through aides, that the Senator would have voted against the Democrats’ measure last night, but that’s very different from an actual vote against it. His demurring on the stimulus-package vote allows McCain to remain conveniently unclear about his beliefs and allegiances when it comes to solving what has become, along with Iraq, the greatest immediate problem likely to face the next president. McCain’s vote would have been a helpful piece of data to help the press postulate and analyze the positions of a lawmaker who, for all that talk of straight talk, wobbles quite often when it comes to the economy; that the senator gave what amounted to a legislative “no comment” yesterday preemptively erased that information from the press’s database. As Matt Yglesias noted,

Other presidential candidates showed up—Obama was there, Clinton was there. Other Arizonians showed up—Jon Kyl was there. Other contrarians showed up—Joe Lieberman was there. Indeed, ninety-nine senators thought it was worth taking the time out of their busy schedules to show up and vote on an important piece of legislation. But not John McCain. He’s too mavericky for that.

I’d also note (hat tip, Jake Tapper) that, of the 450 votes Senate votes conducted so far in the 110th Congress, McCain missed more than half (56.7 percent) of them. I’d further note that the only senator with a worse record in this regard is Tim Johnson (D-SD)—and he suffered a brain hemorrhage in December 2006 and has yet to return to his legislative duties.

Most would agree that Senator McCain has been a generally effective legislator, and he may well have valid explanations for his spotty voting record. The point is that he needs to be pressed to give those explanations. He needs to be accountable for his missteps, rather than assuming he can charm his way around them. We’ve seen what happens when a president considers himself, whether through ego or through the sheer force of his convictions, to be above accountability. But—particularly today, with Romney’s announcement of his campaign’s suspension and McCain’s official assumption to the status of “presumptive nominee”—the political press owes it to voters to question McCain more rigorously. Even mavericks deserve scrutiny.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.