Courtesy Clair Popkin/AP

John McCain’s Priorities Put Americans First — We Should Continue His Fights

By Reed Galen

With this weekend’s passing of John McCain, an American political era, perhaps a political epoch has come to an end. He was a uniquely American sort — a fiercely independent individual who was ready, willing and able to put his duty to country ahead of all other political considerations.

As we spend time thinking of McCain’s journey — one paired with unimaginable pain and suffering and attaining the heights of national and international acclaim, we shouldn’t lose sight of those issues that he championed most during his time in public life.

Not only are they the issues we face today, and that neither party adequately addresses, they seem downright quaint when compared with the focus of our current political discourse.

In 2007, Sen. McCain and Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) came as close as anyone had in two decades (since Ronald Reagan’s 1986 general amnesty) from achieving comprehensive immigration reform. They worked across the aisle to make the attempt. They worked with another Republican, President George W. Bush, to try and solve the issue.

McCain also tried to achieve a landmark policy solution in the face of opposition from the base of the Republican party — while running for the GOP nomination for president. He saw an opportunity to make a real difference and that it didn’t coincide with a larger, grander and more personal political ambition, he did all he could to achieve it.

Ultimately, the effort by McCain and Kennedy failed, as did the so-called “Gang of Eight” in 2013. Now, 11 years after that first attempt, the immigration debate in this country has sunken to once-unimaginable lows, and the prospect of any real reform seems a pipedream.

During his time in Congress, John McCain earned a reputation as a budget hawk. He knew that America’s debt and deficit are among the most pressing issues we face as a country and he repeatedly and vigorously spoke out about it. He extolled the pressing need for comprehensive budgetary reform: including tax and entitlement reform that would put the US on more sound financial footing.

Again, McCain was one of the few voices willing to stand and be heard on an issue of national import that his colleagues on both sides of the aisle continue to be unwilling and unable to seriously and adequately address.

Having served his nation for six decades, McCain understood that a republic lives its life on tenterhooks if its people neither trust nor believe what their government tells them or how it operates. The senator pushed hard on issues like ending earmarks (those pork-barrel goodies that members of Congress inserted into spending bills) and fixing the massive military procurement process.

Like General Dwight Eisenhower before him, McCain knew enough about the military and how it works to know what a bad deal for the American people looked like — and he knew the Pentagon was infested with bad deals.

Perhaps no issue riled the Washington establishment than his push, along with then-Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, to push through campaign finance reform in 2002. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) was unique in that everyone in a position of power hated it — and that was why McCain loved it.

A testament to the power of money in politics, McCain-Feingold faced massive pushback from politicians, the two major parties and so-called “dark-money” groups that challenged the law in court and often defanged its most potent aspects. Now, nearly two decades later, more money washes through the system than ever before, and between court cases and actions by this administration, we’re further than ever from transparency in campaign finance.

Though he’ll be remembered for many things, John McCain’s candor provided a refreshing change of pace from talking-point drive politicians. McCain, far from being afraid to make news, was the first to find the cameras and the microphones to make sure that the country heard what he had to say on issues of the day; after all, if you’re only going to Washington to toe the party line and mark time, what was the point of going in the first place?

To McCain, the issues he took on were part and parcel of a broken system that those in charge repeatedly and continually utilized the rules to advantage themselves at the expense of their constituents.

With our politics as unsettled as they’ve been in half a century, and independent reform and political movements picking up steam and organizing more than ever before, we should look to Senator John McCain’s example of what it means to lead on issues, regardless of, actually in spite of, what’s politically easy or expedient. Leading doesn’t mean laying back and finding the popular issues.

Leading means taking on those existential problems that we face and being willing to speak up in support of what is right and what is necessary, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.

Reed Galen is Chief Strategist of SAM — the Serve America Movement. He served as Deputy Campaign Manager for John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2007.