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“Watch the Show”

The “skinny” health care repeal vote and the sportsification of vital American policy

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

When the stakes are the lives of 15 million or so Americans, we probably ought to nix the theater coverage. But it was no less than Arizona Senator John McCain, the man of the hour, who told us, “Watch the show.” And, indeed, last night’s Senate vote on the “skinny” health care repeal was a 2017 collective media experience. We checked Twitter and realized something interesting was going on. We made jokes. We ventured amateur analysis. Minus the life-and-death part, it had the feel of an unexpectedly competitive Pac-12 football game that the country noticed in installments. And — for some of us — the right team won.

The night began like a lot of impromptu Twitter experiences, with groping questions. What channel is it on? (The answer was C-SPAN until the cable news networks forcibly removed themselves from covering Anthony Scaramucci.) What’s the score? Who are we supposed to be rooting for? The answers, if you’re an Obamacare fan: senators Collins, Murkowski, McCain — all Republicans.

The GOP, having already suffered two health care bill defeats, had one last shot to pass a “skinny” — a.k.a. downsized — repeal bill. I’ll leave it to the policy analysts to describe the unique horribleness of the bill. The important thing, dramawise, was that Republicans held the vote late at night so the bill would escape the usual journalistic scrutiny. The GOP needed 50 Senate votes, with Mike Pence, the vice president and would-be tie-breaker, on hand to be no. 51.

It had become clear that the Democrats’ only hope was McCain, the intermittent “maverick” and sweetheart of political journalists. Like sports announcers, let us note the “story lines”: Last week, McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer; days later, he gave a stirring speech about the sanctity of Senate procedure; and yet he still voted in favor of letting his party evade such procedure and move to the climactic vote this morning. McCain made for good drama because no one knew what the hell he was going to do, or what “principle” might guide him.

On the Senate floor Friday morning, McCain got into a long conversation with Pence. Was Pence sending a threat from the White House? (According to one writer watching the proceedings from the chamber, McCain told the veep, “I promise you.” Promise what?) Pence then left the floor.

At this point, political reporters didn’t know how McCain was going to vote. So they tried to fill in the gaps with Zapruder-like study of McCain’s gestures. There was McCain’s significant head nod to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. A long conversation with his pal Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who was on board as a “yes” vote. A thumbs-down to Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, who later voted “no.” I particularly enjoyed this analysis from CNN, because even after knowing McCain’s vote I have no idea what it means:

McCain could have been saying, “I’m the one … senator who doesn’t like Chipotle” — which is apparently the official late-night food of the GOP leadership.

Bloomberg reporter Steven Dennis emerged as the MVP of the body-language competition. At 12:10 ET, Dennis tweeted: “I THINK WE HAVE NEWS!!!!” I saw some people compare the action that followed to sports play-by-play. It felt more like an old-time radio re-creation, where the announcer pulled updates from the wires and added a little English for the folks at home. Listen, sports fans:

That was Schumer, the Democrat, and John Cornyn, the Republican, as the masks of comedy and tragedy. Such an interpretation sounded pretty silly. But give it to Dennis: He turned out to be absolutely right.

Around this time, reporter Haley Byrd of Independent Journal Review dropped a notebook from the press gallery that landed on South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s head. This was like the fan in the bleachers tossing something into the outfield.

Now, the Senate was poised to vote. This seemed to favor the Republicans. NBC’s Benjy Sarlin noted that it’s rare for McConnell to call a vote knowing he’s going to lose, which would only serve to stick vulnerable senators (like Nevada’s Dean Heller) with a tough-to-explain mark on the résumé.

If you were following on Twitter, you might have seen MSNBC’s Joy Reid incorrectly announce that the Democrats had won the vote, 48–52. Reid was watching the wrong thing — a procedural vote that preceded the main event. She deleted the tweet, but not before a few giddy liberals in my timeline had declared victory.

As CNN’s M.J. Lee noted, McCain vanished from the floor as the names of the senators were called in alphabetical order. Turns out he was talking to Trump. The president — who once called McCain insufficiently heroic — tried one last hard sell. McCain ambled back onto the floor. He extended his right arm — a lot of us had flipped on the TV now — and gave a dramatic thumbs-down.

On Twitter, we quickly got the instant replay of Republican anguish. McConnell’s arms were clenched tightly under his armpits. Bill Cassidy’s head sagged. If you’ve seen the super-close-up replays Fox shows of a quarterback’s face right after an interception, you get the idea.

Great stuff, right? Well, it’s worth noting that Friday morning’s drama was deliberately engineered by the players themselves. Asked how he was voting as he strode to the chamber, McCain refused to answer and told reporters to “watch the show.” (Other reporters had him saying, “Wait for the show.”) It was as if someone who mastered the performative aspects of being a U.S. senator was writing a lede for one final, grateful political journalist. Schumer later revealed that he knew early in the evening how McCain was going to vote but kept the information to himself. Schumer was left — in a moment noticed by New York Times ace Jonathan Martin — to quiet his cheering caucus after McCain’s vote. We gotta look relieved on behalf of America, not giddy on behalf of ourselves!

The epilogue — the postgame press conferences, if you will — had some great moments, too. McConnell gave a piteous speech about keeping Republicans together (which he was unable to do) and seemed on the verge of choking up. Schumer did choke up when he mentioned his situational ally McCain. During McCain’s walk to the parking lot (helpfully relayed by a cable news producer), he got off one last, mavericky salvo: “I thought it was the right thing to do.” Going into the night, nobody knew what “right” meant for John McCain. Most of us would have assumed it was a synonym for “Republican.”

We turned back to Twitter. Where was the inevitable Trump tweet? Would he blast McCain? Or maybe Murkowski, who has become a new Twitter bête noir? Trump delivered at 2:25 a.m. ET:

It’s probably worth noting that a president threatening to let a national insurance program “implode” now counts as minor stuff. (He could have gone the full Scaramucci.) In any case, Trump’s tweet can be seen as analogous to another staple of sports TV: a preview of next week’s games.

It was now well past 2 a.m. ET. Cable news anchors, given the gift of a surprisingly large audience, were trying to sweat out a chyron that could carry them into the night. Is McCain the new Lion of the Senate? was the last piece of idiocy I heard before I switched off the TV. It was at that moment that the July 28 Senate health care vote felt most like a late football game. You looked at the clock and thought, “That was riveting, but, Christ, I gotta go to bed.”