Imagine What Would Have Happened If John McCain Had Stayed For This Meeting ....


If you follow the news cycle closely, you may have noticed a cute little story yesterday about John McCain. As CNN reported, the Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential candidate opened a door that he thought would bring him to one of his appointments ... and found that he had accidentally wandered into a Capitol Hill meeting between President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats.

For the most part, each of the outlets that covered this incident depicted it as a cute little anecdote. The accounts ran the same way: McCain said "my mistake," the Democrats laughed, Obama extended a good-natured invitation for McCain to join the meeting, and McCain predictably declined before going on his merry way. By the time McCain tweeted about the incident a few hours later, he was already urging the political world to "lighten up," no doubt to preempt any particularly humorless pundits who might try to draw the blood of scandal from this stone of a faux pas.

My mind, though, went in a different direction. Instead of politely declining Obama's invitation to attend the Senate Democrats' meeting, what if McCain had decided to stay?

Of course, a hypothetical universe in which McCain actually joined his partisan opponents would have to contain fundamental structural differences from the one we currently inhabit. It would be a place free of the less savory dimensions of human nature, which have caused intense (and sometimes vicious) friction between the various sides of our two-party system since the era of Federalists and Democratic-Republicans (the oft-lamented "good old days" of bipartisan comity have always been more myth than reality). Similarly, it would be a world free of political intrigue, where Democrats could share their ideas and strategies for cultivating economic growth, addressing climate change, and implementing Obamacare (the three goals of the Capitol Hill meeting) with a prominent Senate Republican without fear of adverse consequences.

In short, it would be a complete fantasy.

That said, such fantasies aren't devoid of real-world merit. While bipartisanship may be a chimerical objective in its own right, some of our nation's most sweeping rhetoric has been dedicated to preaching its virtues. In his farewell address, George Washington warned about the danger of political parties, arguing that partisanship "serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another."

A few years later, when Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in the epic election of 1800 (the second contested presidential contest and the first one in which rival political factions had to exchange power), the Sage of Monticello began his new administration by declaring that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle" and that "we are all republicans, we are all federalists."

Indeed, Obama himself became a national figure in part because his famous Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention urged Americans to remember that "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America."

The fact that we can give such eloquent expression to the ideal of bipartisanship means that, on some level, we as a nation do yearn for a political environment in which differences of opinion could be discussed in a civil and intellectually responsible fashion. PolicyMic was created in large part with the goal of helping to create such a culture, although its pundits (myself included) have not always succeeded in reaching it (and naturally PolicyMic can be no more responsible for its message board commenters than any other website).

In this vein, perhaps McCain could have joined them as a symbolic gesture, embodying through his actions the spirit that Washington, Jefferson, and Obama himself all articulated. While it's highly unlikely that anything more substantial would have come of such a move (and for all we know the appointment to which he'd been heading was too important to be cancelled), such a gesture might still have been appreciated.

Of course, in the end, the attainment of a bipartisan ideal seems to be a bit of a Sisyphusian labor, one that dooms its advocates to prolonged exertions that at best see temporary success (usually when external crises compel them) and more frequently contain nine-parts spectacle for every single part of real substance. That is why this article, instead of being a full-throated suggestion, is more of a wistful tribute to a world that could have been.