Looking Back: 4 Times John McCain Embraced Bipartisanship

As a self-proclaimed maverick, Arizona senator and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain embodies a brand of politics rarely seen on Capitol Hill these days. Though reliably conservative, with 30-plus years in the body, McCain has forged long-lasting partnerships and personal friendships with Democrats, even siding with them last year to defeat a hastily drafted attempt to abolish the Affordable Care Act, and co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation to regulate soft money in politics. His devotion to the institution of the Senate is arguably as important a part of his life story as his wartime experience.
For McCain, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last year, the personal and political are inextricably linked, and his inspiring biography the bedrock of his public life and career. So it comes as no surprise that the Arizona senator’s most significant accomplishments are closely tied to his life story, and show a marked compassion for the lives of ordinary Americans. Here are four of McCain’s major legislative accomplishments.


After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. broke off all diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Ties were slowly restored over the following decades, and in 1991, the Pentagon opened an office in Hanoi to help look for MIA service members. In 1994, almost 20 years after the last American troops left Vietnam, President Bill Clinton started the process of normalizing relations, lifting a nearly 19-year-long economic embargo against the country. While many conservatives and war veterans decried the move, McCain — who happened to be both conservative and a Vietnam vet — became an unlikely supporter of normalization, leading a 1993 trip to Hanoi with fellow vet and then-Sen. John Kerry.
In 1994, McCain co-sponsored a resolution urging full diplomatic recognition of the country, saying that normalization was the surest way to aid Vietnamese political reforms and protect American security interests in the region. In 1995, the two nations officially restored full diplomatic relations, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher traveled to Hanoi to open a U.S. embassy there.


The Keating Five may not have as large a cultural footprint as, say, Watergate, but it was among the bigger political scandals of the late 1980s. In 1987, a group of five senators, among them McCain, were accused of improperly intervening on behalf of financier Charles H. Keating Jr., chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which was the target of an investigation by federal regulators. Lincoln collapsed in 1989, leading to the loss of $3.4 billion dollars of taxpayer money, calling attention to the substantial political contributions Keating made to each of the senators who had previously shielded him from being investigated.
Though the Senate Ethics Committee ultimately cleared McCain of acting improperly (he was criticized for exercising “poor judgment”), the episode had a lasting impact on McCain, who became a leader in the fight for campaign finance reform. McCain went on to partner with a democratic senator, Russ Feingold, to enact a signature bill, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 — commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act — to rein in the vast amounts of money swirling around politics. Though much of the regulatory muscle of the bill was stripped by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the legislation still stands as one of McCain’s most important legislative accomplishments.

John McCain 2
John McCain gives an interview after returning from Vietnam in 1973. After enduring nearly six years of torture as a POW, McCain became an outspoken advocate against excessive interrogation methods.


If nothing else, McCain understands the hell that torture visits on a body, having spent nearly six years as a POW in Vietnam. This experience lent him credence as a powerful voice in Congress against the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding. After 9/11, his position on torture pitted McCain against the Bush administration, as Bush’s war on terror relied on techniques that many critics, including McCain, considered torture.
In 2005, McCain sponsored the Detainee Treatment Act as an amendment to a defense spending bill, demanding that the CIA adhere to the Army’s interrogation procedures, which explicitly prohibit the inhumane treatment of prisoners, including those at Guantanamo Bay.
This issue is once again front-page news, with President Trump’s recent nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA director. Haspel has been accused of overseeing a secret CIA detention facility in Thailand where detainees were waterboarded, and then subsequently destroying videotaped evidence of such interrogation sessions. McCain urged Congress to reject Haspel’s nomination, stating that “Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing,” and “her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” though Haspel was eventually confirmed 54-45.


McCain was opposed to 2009’s landmark Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), voting no on the original bill, and supporting subsequent motions and amendments to weaken or replace it. But in 2017, just days after the Arizona senator revealed that he had a malignant brain tumor, McCain voted no on a Republican-led effort to repeal the ACA, saying that the Better Care Reconciliation Act (i.e. the “skinny repeal” bill), would have destabilized insurance markets and possibly led to deep Medicaid cuts. (Arizona state officials had estimated that the BCRA would have cost Arizona’s Medicaid program $7.1 billion by the end of 2026.)
McCain’s vote, which stunned many of his colleagues and effectively killed the bill, was less an endorsement of Obamacare than it was a rebuke of the way that the bill was being rushed to passage without proper debate and a CBO score. In his Senate floor speech, McCain called for bipartisan health-reform legislation that was the product of “regular order,” where legislation goes through a transparent committee process and both parties are able to work on it.
McCain also voted no on the subsequent Graham-Cassidy proposal, which would have weakened or eliminated the rule that insurance companies need to cover patients with pre-existing conditions. “We should not be content to pass health care legislation on a party-line basis,” McCain said in a statement on the proposal. “The issue is too important, and too many lives are at risk, for us to leave the American people guessing from one election to the next whether and how they will acquire health insurance. A bill of this impact requires a bipartisan approach.”

Update: Sen. John McCain passed away on August 25, 2018, at his home in Arizona. He is survived by his wife and seven children.

When Liberals and Conservatives Came Together on the Environment

Kyle Meyaard-Schaap’s environmental revelation came on the top of a mountain. What was left of one anyway.
As an undergrad at Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Mich., Meyaard-Schaap began learning about mountaintop-removal mining. He took trips to West Virginia in 2010 and 2012, where for decades swaths of mountains in the mid-Appalachian region have had their peaks blasted off, allowing miners to bore out the coal within. Before then, Meyaard-Schaap, who grew up in a close-knit evangelical family in a small Michigan town, hadn’t given much thought to the environment. “Those issues weren’t even on my radar,” he says.
But in West Virginia he camped with nuns on top of denuded, geologic stumps. They had to shower with rainwater, because the groundwater had become so polluted. He met with families of children diagnosed with cancer attributed to the mining waste that had seeped into the region’s aquifers.
“I started to connect environmental care with people care,” says Meyaard-Schaap, 29, who went on to found the activist group Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA). “It wasn’t much of a stretch to connect that to climate.”
Meyaard-Schaap is part of a new generation of activists who fight for tougher environmental laws — the sort usually associated with liberals — by asserting the values and policies more commonly embraced by conservatives. Framing issues of the left through the political lens of the right is a method that’s worked in the past, especially when it comes to climate change.

A member of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action participates in the People’s Climate March in April 2017.

Two decades before Meyaard-Schaap’s activism, a Republican lawyer and political advisor named C. Boyden Gray crafted a potential solution to the rising threat of climate change. Gray had been intrigued for decades by the possibility of using cap-and-trade to clean the atmosphere. The system works by setting aggregate limits on pollutants while allowing businesses to meet them by paying, trading or innovating to account for their share.
Gray had previously worked for Ronald Reagan, a president whose popularity with evangelicals helped catapult him to the White House, and watched as Reagan’s tenure ended with an environmental crisis. So much sulfur had been belched by Rust Belt coal plants into the wind currents that blew across the Great Lakes and into Canada that fragile ecosystems, along with many thousands of people, had become sick. The prime minister of Canada quipped grimly about declaring war.
In 1988 — the first presidential election to feature staunch environmentalist Al Gore as a candidate — Republican nominee George H. W. Bush pledged to be an “environmental president.” Gray saw his opportunity. With little fanfare he helped write cap-and-trade legislation targeting sulfur; it became law under the Clean Air Act of 1990. Within a few years, the amount of acid rain (which occurs when sulfur rises in the atmosphere and mixes with water, oxygen and other pollutants) decreased by half — at a cost of around one-eighth what critics had feared. The success was resounding.
“You let the market take over, and government doesn’t get in the way,” Gray tells NationSwell. “It’s the most efficient, frictionless way to reduce pollutants.”
Gray and others believed this tool, cap-and-trade, could be expanded and modified to squelch climate change too. But then government — or, rather, politics — did get in the way.
Far-left environmentalists and far-right Republicans both soured on cap-and-trade. Meanwhile, the common ground stood on by centrist members of both parties was splitting apart. Environmentalism was ceded to the left, and then weaponized against them by the right. By 2009, Democratic representatives Henry A. Waxman of California and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts had written cap-and-trade legislation for carbon that passed the Democratic-controlled House. But Senate Republicans wouldn’t even consider it.
Cap-and-trade, Gray says, “skipped a beat.”


Three years earlier, the acrid political climate had made state lawmakers in California give up on the federal government. Assembly speaker Fabian Nunez, a Democrat from Los Angeles, co-authored the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. In sweeping fashion, it reshaped the state’s electric, construction and automotive industries. Inspired by the success against acid rain, parts of this act included cap-and-trade. But Nunez insisted, against the wishes of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that it also include mandates limiting carbon emissions.
“My idea was, we’ve got do a mandate; necessity is the mother of invention,” says Nunez today. “I’m a Mexican-American from Los Angeles. I grew up in a polluted neighborhood in San Diego underneath the smokestacks of a shipbuilding company, surrounded by junkyards and stray dogs. I care about the environment; I just came about it a little bit differently.”

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (C) signs the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 to reduce greenhouse emissions.

That landmark California law inspired others. Hawaii, for example, made a bold commitment to get its energy completely from clean renewables by midcentury. Dozens of U.S. cities also did the same. Some states, including Illinois and New York, have made more gradual commitments.
Utilities are responding to this pressure. Duke Energy, a large utility provider in the Southeast and former scourge of environmentalists, has set a “new goal to reduce C02 emissions 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2030,” says spokeswoman Dawn Santoianni.
This dogpile against carbon pollution by states, cities, shareholders, customers and citizens could be the best strategy in an era of federal abdication to fight climate change. The common denominator uniting these various tools — cap-and-trade, mandates, shareholder demands and citizen protests — is the assignation of a negative financial, legal or social value on excess carbon.
“If the true cost of production is taken into account, cleaner sources of fuel, such as solar and wind, will be more competitive,” says Tom Erb, national field organizer for the pro-carbon tax campaign Put a Price on It.


How can more bodies be added to the weight of the masses trying to clamp shut the carbon vents cooking the world? Michael Livermore, the executive director of New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity, says the answer for environmentalists lies across the partisan chasm.
“The most important actors out there,” he says, “are people who care about climate and are Republicans.”
Meyaard-Schaap, of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, had a revelation about that too.
He listened as language used by many on the left to convey the urgency of climate action turned to static on the social frequencies attuned to by his loved ones. So he looked to the American evangelical tradition for a solution: Stories of personal transformation can connect where scientific data does not.
He says his own family is an example. Not too long ago, Meyaard-Schaap’s parents and grandparents were “suspicious” about climate change, he says. Since he testified to them about his change of heart, they now donate regularly to his nonprofit. So far, YECA has engaged more than 10,000 people across the nation in the fight against the warming of the planet.
“When it comes to climate change, you’re not going to get anywhere unless you affirm the values of your audience,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is bear witness to the fact that this doesn’t have to be such a divisive issue.”

What Are ‘Political Entrepreneurs?’ This Guy Believes They’re the Heroes Who Will Disrupt Washington’s Gridlock

“Political entrepreneur” is a phrase NationSwell Council member Kahlil Byrd uses to describe nonprofit leaders and techies who are tackling America’s biggest problems “in a completely innovative, nontraditional, and entrepreneurial way.” And without a dose of partisanship.  

“Their bias is to create a tool, an idea or a process that will cut through the challenge,” Byrd wrote earlier this year in Forbes.

Byrd, a Republican, has been dedicated to cross-partisan policy reform for more than a decade. He’s worked with Massachusetts’ former governor Deval Patrick and Michelle Rhee, both Democrats. And during the 2012 presidential primary he ran Americans Elect, a startup that worked to get a bipartisan presidential ticket on all 50 state ballots. More recently, in the wake of the 2016 election, he’s noticed a new league of people across the political spectrum determined to reform American policy.

As he wrote in a December 2016 LinkedIn post, political entrepreneurs are “tackling the biggest issues that directly affect citizens’ lives [and] they refuse to accept the failure, division, and deadlock that dominates our politics.”

But as an investor with deep ties to the nonprofit and tech sectors, he knows firsthand the challenges his beloved “political entrepreneurs” face in getting the financing they need to transform their civic innovations into nonpartisan policies.  

“Even the best ideas — making it easier to vote, using data to connect citizens to Congress or deploying new talent into undervalued sectors like child welfare — have profound trouble finding the capital needed to scale,” the New York City–based Byrd says.

Taking action, Byrd co-founded the Invest America Fund, an advisory firm and seed fund that supports political entrepreneurs and matches them to what he says are “the business leaders, philanthropists and others who have already succeeded and want to spend their time and capital.”

Byrd and his co-founder, Kellen Arno, believe they are among the few investors focused on creating a financing pipeline for these types of policy innovators.

One organization they back is Foster America, a startup devoted to child welfare reform founded by Sherry Lachman, a foster child herself who later went on to serve as a policy adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. The nonprofit’s fellowship program recruits talent from the business, education, technology and health fields, and supports them in their efforts to transform child welfare policy.

Early success has led Foster America to double its impact, expanding from eight fellows in 2016 to 16 this year. By 2020, Foster America plans to have 50 fellows working with 25 child welfare agencies nationwide.

“We are trying to bring together two groups on opposite ends of the success curve: Political entrepreneurs on one end, and on the other, successful and creative funders who can provide growth financing,” says Byrd. “Entrepreneurs are still trying to prove worth — both their own and of their ideas. Funders have sustained success and know how to build value from the ground up. Both care deeply about the country.

Kahlil Byrd is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Invest America Fund, which provides seed money to entrepreneurs working on bipartisan policy reform.

Tech Visionaries Look to Disrupt Traditional Education, The Move to Make Climate Change a Nonpartisan Issue and More

Learn Different, The New Yorker
Brooklyn’s AltSchool is just one of seven “educational ecosystems” (there’s six in the Bay Area as well) that uses technology to create a personalized learning experience for each individual student. The brainchild of Max Ventilla, an entrepreneur and former Google employee, AltSchool aims to turn education on its head: teaching skills that are applicable to the 21st century workplace instead of the memorization of facts — creating an educational model grounded in Silicon Valley values. But can be replicated in existing public schools nationwide?
Can a GOP Donor Get Conservatives to Fight Climate Change?, CityLab
What can get politicians to put partisan bickering aside? North Carolina businessman Jay Faison is bringing congressional candidates from both sides of the aisle together to support clean energy initiatives, arguing that these policies (which are notoriously used to drive a wedge between the left and the right) increase jobs and energy independence, while also reducing carbon pollution.
Government Goes Agile, Stanford Social Innovation Review
Bringing the federal government into the digital age doesn’t have to increase the deficit — or be as disastrous as the rollout of HealthCare.gov. Implementing the commonly-used tech practice of agile development, groups like the United States Digital Services and 18F are giving citizens frustration-free, web-based opportunities to interact with their government for a fraction of the cost.