The Republicare Vote
I didn’t want to go.
I just wasn’t in the mood, really. I’d been working all day, and would have to do the same tomorrow. The prospect of driving for an hour to go home, then to ride in a car for two hours in order to be surrounded by strangers, followed by disappointing news, then on top of that having to ride all the way back home feeling down – it wasn’t an appetizing thought.
Hell, I was already depressed and anxious enough. Those two feelings tend to follow me almost all of the time, and it always takes at least a little effort to keep them at bay. Some days are worse than others, and on that Thursday they were feeling pretty damn strong. I struggle now and again with, well, a lot of things, and some days are harder than others. The really fun thing about my own particular cocktail of misery is that my depression makes me want to be alone, my anxiety makes me unable to cope with social situations (to the point where I often find myself unable to face the prospect of asking another person to give me food when they are literally being paid to do that very thing and so I’ll skip lunch instead), and – here’s the fun part – being alone makes me more anxious and depressed. It’s a good time.
So I was faced with a choice. My wife was going, which I was behind 100%. Not only was it important to her, it was important, period. We’d been in the same situation earlier that week and a few weeks prior, and in those cases she’d stayed overnight. I didn’t go in those cases because overnights didn’t work for me having to drive into the office. This time, though, wasn’t going to be an overnight. She asked if I wanted to go.
I hemmed and hawed and stammered, not wanting to be alone or surrounded by strangers or setting myself up for disappointment. Finally, my desire to be with my wife and to do something I thought was important outweighed my fear of being around people, so I wrapped myself in a cloak of resigned depression over what was about to happen, got in the car, and rode along.
Two hours later, we arrived in Washington D.C. to join the protesters outside the Capitol as the Senate was going to vote to take health insurance away from, at a minimum, 16 million people and increase premiums for everyone else.
I’m not going to debate the merits of the Republican efforts to repeal and replace the ACA here, on my blog. You can catch me on Facebook if you want to do that, although you won’t enjoy it. The main reason why I won’t debate it here is because as far as I am concerned, the Republican efforts have no merit whatsoever. They made no effort to improve the healthcare system at all: they just wanted to cut Medicaid and give tax breaks to the wealthy while claiming they were fulfilling their promise of repealing Obamacare. If they failed that, they would end the individual and employer mandates instead. In either case, millions of people would lose insurance and premiums would increase, all because the Republican party had lied for so long about the ACA in order to drum up support for their candidates who embraced the repeal effort. They promised they would end Obamacare, so they would do it, no matter who they hurt.
And I knew – I knew – this time they would succeed. The “skinny repeal” was going to pass with 50 votes and a boost from Mike Pence, the tiebreaker. And I was going to be outside the building when they did it. The future after that would be murky for me and my wife, because of the Stage IV cancer in her body, and we were looking at a world where high-risk pools would mean that her treatment would no longer be about what was best for her ongoing health, but instead what we could afford. All because some people had lied to a large section of the population and said something was worse than it actually is, and had promised to get rid of a thing that saved my wife’s life and our financial future.
It was personal for us, of course, but I also worried about the friends I had – cancer survivors, diabetics, folks with heart problems, more – and their futures. I was worried about a college student who might discover they have an illness that will require lifetime care, jeopardizing their ability to get a job and contribute to society and find happiness while facing financial uncertainty not just from onerous student loans but now higher insurance costs. Parents bankrupting themselves because of an illness to their child. This was the future one political party was hell-bent on bringing to life, all because of their own bullshit grandstanding on an issue most of them didn’t actually disagree with, except for the man’s name attached to it.
But I knew, deep down, that 50 Republicans were going to vote in favor of it.
I felt a little better when we arrived, but not much. My wife is a stalwart and formidable person, though, and she put up with me sitting in my little grey cloud giving monosyllabic responses to her conversation. Gradually, her patience brought me around a little, and by the time we got to the hotel where we’d leave the car I was less depressed and anxious and more bitter and sarcastic. I know that doesn’t sound like much of an improvement, but you’ve probably never been around me when I’m depressed. In those instances, my silence and glower will actually poison the air around me and dampen sound. I’m like a walking version of the 2nd level cleric spell, only with a much larger radius. It’s bad.
By the time we got to the Capitol, I was feeling feistier. We were carrying the same signs we’d made for the first healthcare rally we’d attended – hers with a brief description of her story, mine simply reading The ACA Saved My Wife’s Life – and joined up with the couple of hundred protesters on the grass. There were cops around to keep us from going towards the Capitol building itself, but after attending a few rallies and protests in D.C. I wasn’t worried. The Capitol Police and protestors had never had any issues that I’d seen, and they were uniformly (hah! Get it?!) polite and we listened to them.
Speakers came and went, gradually becoming more and more powerful. I stood listening to Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, Minority Leader Pelosi, then a whole slew of Senators who we could all count on: Tammy Duckworth (such a badass), Ed Markey from Massachusetts, Bob Casey from PA, Chris Murphy from CT, and Van Hollen from my wonderful home state of Maryland. Interspersed among the politicians were a few regular folk, a woman from Maine who assured us that Susan Collins was on our side and who had worked very hard to make it happen, and some of the moms from the Little Lobbyists, a group of parents and their children with illnesses that will last their entire lives and who spent days and weeks going to every Senator’s office to tell their story.
By this time, my depression and anxiety were pushed down – not forgotten, because I still believed that I knew what would happen once the vote was taken – a vote we were then told wouldn’t happen until 11 o’clock at the earliest. The organizers asked us to stay, to share our stories, even though it would be getting late. We did. Regular folks got up and told their stories to the crowd, and we shouted chants at the building where 100 men and women would make a decision that would shape the lives of millions. Our cries of “Kill the Bill, Don’t Kill Us” and “Shame” echoed back to us from that building, sounding like a short cheer with everything we called out. We were told about reports from the Capitol that the sounds of our protests could be heard in the Senate chambers themselves. We just got louder.
Then a young woman very near and dear to me got up and told her story to the crowd.
I might be a little biased, but it was one of the best damn speeches I’ve ever witnessed.
We were fired up (ready to go!) and loud, even though it was probably 11 o’clock at night by this point. Then a group of black SUVs pulled up to the Capitol, and nestled between them was a long black limo flying the American flag. We knew what that meant. Vice President Pence was arriving to serve as the tie-breaker vote. The circle of protestors broke and filed to the edge of our allotted space and we greeted the Vice President with chants of “Shame!” They continued long after he was inside.
After that, we were even more engaged. A few more shy protesters stepped forward, one a young woman whose sister had late stage cancer, another who suffered from depression and feared the damage the bills could do to mental health services. Just like my wife, they were embraced and thanked by the strangers around them, who thanked them for telling their stories. After each one, we shouted at the Capitol, voices a little ragged but still echoing into the night.
Then 11:45 rolled around, and a group of people came out of the building and walked over to us. Cheers went up as we recognized Al Franken. I didn’t think to record it until after he started, but here’s a good bit of it:
He was a little popular with the crowd. He made a joke about a chant of “Giant of the Senate” and we laughed, but he didn’t get the chant.
Now we were really excited. We knew the vote to send the skinny repeal bill back to committee was going on, a futile effort the Democrats put forward. I stood with my wife when one of the organizers came up to my wife and handed her a slip of paper.
She quickly got another one for me, and seconds later we were hurrying through the night to go watch the vote from the gallery. We were going to see it happen in person.
As it turned out, we had front-row seats. Well, second row, but since no one was allowed to sit in the first row it made no difference. We knew the rules: no talking, no facial expressions of approval or disproval, just stoic quiet observation. There before us were the men and women who held the fate of millions of people and billions of dollars in their hands. They were wandering and chatting as the vote on skinny repeal waited to start. Ted Cruz, standing by himself and looking even slimier in person than the camera can manage. Franken and Warren, Schumer and Kaine, Bernie with his even-more-hilarious-in-person poof of white hair.
But really, none of them mattered. We all knew what they were going to do. Instead, my wife and I only had eyes for 3 people, the ones who really would make or break this night for us and millions of others. Susan Collins of Maine. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. John McCain of Arizona. I felt sure about the first two. I also felt sure about McCain, only in a different way.
Back in 2000, I was a Republican, and I knew the man I believed should be the next President of the United States. The Maverick, crisscrossing the country on the Straight Talk Express. Bona fide war hero, man of courage and principle who wasn’t afraid to buck party leadership and say when he thought they were wrong. Even his name was an echo of the hero from Die Hard. John McCain.
Then his tendency to occasionally refuse to toe the party line came back to bite him in the ass as the RNC backed George W. Bush, the idiot scion of a former President. John McCain folded quickly, and from that day forward he was completely different. His votes became redder than a baboon’s ass. He would occasionally say something about a policy the way he did in the old days, but he fell in line. I knew after that the Republican Party had been completely taken over by the self-righteous fatuous nitwittery of the Newt Gingrichs of the party, and I changed my registration to independent. The party I left held Bibles to their chests as abortion and advancement for the rich became their sole focus.
Then, of course, 2008 happened, and McCain inflicted Sarah Palin on us, rendering political discourse to the shitheap and paving the way for the farting orangutan we now have in the Oval Office. He was a shell of himself, an embarrassment, and I proudly and happily voted for Barack Obama instead. After that, he was truly a shill for the Republican line, no matter whatever position of reason he’d once held on issues like immigration. Every now and again the Republicans would wheel him out for some grave pronouncements of sanity as they gleefully attacked the underpinnings of government.
And here we were, at the threshold of healthcare Armageddon. Mitch McConnell, the greatest traitor to the country so far this century, was going to push a bill through, no matter how unpopular. He had three flavors, all vile, since the Senate bill, which would mean 22 million less people covered by insurance and slightly fewer billions going to the rich, had thankfully already gone down in flames. The House bill, which would mean 30 million less people covered by insurance in order to give massive tax breaks to the ultra wealthy. A flat repeal of Obamacare itself, which would be utter chaos. And finally, the so-called “skinny repeal”. The removal of the individual and employer mandates that was the engine that kept the ACA running. Millions of people uninsured and insurances prices going up for everyone.
There had been no Senate hearings, no expert testimony. No one spoke to the doctors or nurses or hospitals or cancer advocates, whose groups opposed all of the measures. McConnell skipped all of those things in favor of an attempt to sneak it in under budget reconciliation rules, requiring just 50 Senate votes and one Aye from the woman-fearing tool of a VP. The vote to proceed to vote was delayed as McCain had surgery for a sudden and aggressive attack from brain cancer.
Then he suddenly came back. The vote to vote was back on and it was going to be done quickly. My wife dropped everything to head to D.C. to protest and meet with senators. Most of the Republicans refused to speak with a young woman with cancer, including McCain and the biggest tool in the shed, Rand Paul. The Maverick himself made a long, powerful speech about how the process to bring these plans to the Senate was flawed, that the plans themselves weren’t good, that regular procedure should be followed – skewering the process McConnell had undertaken. He said he wouldn’t vote for the plans as they stood. Then he turned around and voted in favor of moving forward.
To say he got sent up by the media for the seeming contradiction is an understatement. I myself had a few choice words to say afterwards. It had all the hallmarks of the patented McCain special: high-minded, fair-seeming words, followed by a vote that completely contradicted what he so eloquently said. That was it for me. The man I had admired and cheered for all those years ago had finally kicked me in the teeth one last time. Or, more accurately, it was the penultimate kick; there was one still left to go, and I sat in the Senate gallery waiting to take it in person. The senators had rejected the House plan and the outright repeal, but the skinny repeal was on deck, and I felt like a pre-2016 Cubs fan, waiting for the inevitable bloop single that would crash the insurance market and leaving millions of people at risk of dying for bullshit political reasons.
So I held my wife’s hand as we watched the three senators who mattered. It didn’t take long to see who the Republicans were targeting. Susan Collins of Maine sat in her chair. There was no one, nor was there ever anyone, within ten feet of her. She might as well had a scarlet letter stitched to her shirt. It was a heartwarming sight. Not seeing a reasonable person treated like a leper – it was just nice knowing there was at least one guaranteed no.
Her other compatriot, Lisa Murkowski, was on the other side of Republican territory. A couple of people were talking to her for most of the time, but there was no indication that she was shifting from her position. There didn’t seem to be animosity from the people around her. Maybe they were commiserating about the hamfisted attempts the idiotic White House had made to threaten her. Murkowski had lost the Republican primary in 2010 to a dipshit Tea Party tool, then turned around and won the election as a write-in candidate. Trump and his fuckboi cronies had to register at a threat level just below Sleeping Toddler. She was the 50th Nay.
That left one guy.
The one-time Maverick sat a few feet away. Lindsey Graham was to his left. In front of him was the Race Bannon wannabe Pence. They talked for a while, and we watched them with a sick feeling. Part of that had to do with being in the same room as Ted Cruz, but most of it was the prospect of the White House getting its shit together enough to force this travesty through. After a while they shook hands, and our hearts dropped. As far as we could tell, the sell-job was done.
The game, though, wasn’t over. A few more people talked to McCain. We got bored watching him and looked around at the other people for a while, seeing who was talking to whom and trying to stay hopeful. It was fun watching Cruz get ignored by everyone. Al Franken seemed like a guy the other Dems wanted to hang out with, since he was never alone. We noticed a group in front of the Democrat section, including Chuck Schumer. Then we realized who he was talking to. John McCain.
It was a little weird. The two sides had treated the room like their own personal Korea, never crossing the DMZ aisle between their seating area. And yet here was McCain and Schumer, chatting casually. Four or five other senators were around them, but it seemed to be a discussion between the two. I knew McCain was well-liked among the senators, so I figured folks were taking the chance to see how he was doing. It was then that the first of my three favorite moments of the night took place.
As we watched, John McCain lifting his face to the heavens and, very clearly and obviously, mouthed the word “FUCK”.
We laughed, as did the people around them. I have no idea why he did it. I’d love to know. I like to imagine it was a way to convey to the other senators what listening to the non-stop sales pitch from McConnell, Pence, and Trump was doing to the man. At that moment, my surety was shaken. A faint but persistent glimmer of something like hope flared up in me.
Then it was time to vote.
Everything got quiet. One by one, in alphabetical order, each senator’s name was called. Down the list we went, and I did a slight hand clench as Collins voted No. The first one was in. Down the list we went. A few senators weren’t in the room and got skipped. McCain was nowhere in sight, and we would have to wait. Murkowski’s name came up, and my heart thudded as the second No that mattered came down. Down the list we went.
Then a door in the back of the room opened, and John McCain came out. I didn’t know where he’d been, and it wasn’t until later that I learned he’d been on the phone with Trump. You have probably seen what happened next. He strolled out and lifted his hand to the vote-tallier to get his attention. My wife’s hand gripped mine tightly and I put my other hand over hers. It felt like an eternity, waiting to see whether our and millions of others’ futures would be placed in jeopardy.
Imagine your favorite team is in the Super Bowl, or Game 7 of the World Series or NBA Finals or the Stanley Cup, or the Spelling Bee or Westminster Kennel show or whatever if you hate sports. You’re there, in person, against all odds, as it goes down to the final second. You are either going to be crushed or elated, with no middle ground. And unlike that sporting event, it really matters.
Now imagine seeing your team win, but you can’t react. No standing, no cheering, no clapping. Just silence as your heart swells and explodes in your chest because, finally, the good guys won. It’s a surreal feeling.
We weren’t completely silent. There was a collective gasp from the gallery, and – despite Al Franken’s later attempt to admonish us for doing it – applause from a few Democratic senators. But after that, we were quiet. I sat there with tears in my eyes, vibrating in my seat from disbelief and elation and gratitude, waiting for the results to be officially announced. I’m crying a little right now just thinking about that moment, and recalling a sliver of the emotions I felt. It was glorious, and the best moment of the night, and in the top three greatest things that I’ve witnessed.
The wait was long, like seeing your team’s last-second score challenged on replay. It was enough time to doubt, to wonder if we heard Collins’ and Murkowski’s votes correctly, but finally it was announced. It was done.
There were some amazing moments after that. Listening in person to Mitch McConnell’s bitter little whine about the vote was the second-greatest moment of the night. I sucked every drop of his purse-lipped bitchfest deep into my soul. McConnell is a repulsive little shitbag, and I could watch his speech on a loop for the rest of my life. He directed most of his pathetic drivel towards McCain, who very clearly gave no shits. It was glorious.
Soon after we filed out. If there was anyone upset by the vote they weren’t making known around the rest of us. We rejoined the protesters-turned-celebrants, and got to see our favorite senators come out like players coming out of the locker room. Duckworth, Kamala Harris, Murphy – they were cheered like superstars. We saw McCain come out and head to his car, and we chanted “Thank you McCain” for a while. We would have happily done the same for Collins or Murkowski, but we never saw them. Al Franken came back out and he got his Giant of the Senate chant after all. We left then, since it was 2 a.m. and we still had to get our car and drive home. We missed Elizabeth Warren and Bernie’s appearances, but we floated to the car regardless, despite the hour and the emotional ringer we’d been through. Hand in hand we went, feeling just a little less scared about our uncertain future.
Sometimes, the good guys win.