Juan Williams: Why Flake and McCain are politicians of the year

Editors note: This column originally appeared in The Hill.

Alert the judges, we have a tie!

In the seven years I have been writing this column for The Hill, I have had a year-end tradition of recognizing the member of Congress who, for better or worse, made the biggest impact on national politics in the preceding year.

For 2017, the award goes to Arizona’s two Republican senators, Jeff Flake and John McCain.

Given the deep partisan divide in the country, you might be thinking: Why is a Democrat honoring two conservative Republican senators?

Well, I never shut my eyes to masterful political achievements by Republicans. I don’t think governing should be reduced to partisan sport.

Last year I gave the award to a Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). There is no denying that, in 2016, McConnell obstructed President Obama’s legislative agenda. He even refused to hold hearings for the Democrat’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.

That shameless strategy won the day. It culminated in the theft of a U.S. Supreme Court seat and kept a Republican majority on the Supreme Court.

Now, as the first year of President Trump’s tenure draws to a close, there is no denying that he towers over national politics.

That’s why every member of Congress is to be ranked this year by their stand on Trump’s divisive leadership.

This is the year that Trump claimed good people marched on “both sides” of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

He also set off alarms by accusing the widow of a fallen American solider of lying about the condolence call he placed to her.

Trump has historically low approval numbers for a first-year president. Still, most Republicans on Capitol Hill took no stand against his bad behavior. They feared he would turn his dwindling base of supporters against them with a tweet.

But the two senators from the Grand Canyon State took the risk of speaking out forcefully for political decency and against their own party’s president.

McCain, now 81 and battling brain cancer, laid out the moral case against Trump — without mentioning the president by name — in his October speech accepting the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

McCain called Trump’s brand of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist nationalism “as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”

McCain warned that the U.S. must not “abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe,” specifically human rights and democracy.

He said the world’s single economic and military superpower cannot "refuse the obligations of international leadership...for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”

His speech was a moral challenge to Trump’s divisive nationalism, which continues to distort American politics.

The president’s support for Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate facing allegations that he pursued teenage girls, is the latest example of the absence of any moral principle in Trump’s politics.

McCain is also to be saluted for casting the deciding vote against a mean-spirited repeal of the Affordable Care Act that would have left millions without health insurance.  

To be fair, I have been critical of McCain in the past. His hawkish foreign policy is often counterproductive. History shows his vociferous support for the war in Iraq was a mistake. 

His selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate in 2008 was cynical. It mainstreamed the toxic populism that carried Trump to the White House.

But there is no question that McCain is a patriot. And contrary to what Trump once famously said, McCain is a war hero, without question.

When I ran into him at a baseball game in Washington shortly after his brain cancer diagnosis, I didn’t quite know what to expect. He is famous for having one of the worst tempers in Washington. But the senator was gracious. We even posed with my son for a photograph we shared on social media.

It was a reminder that, in today’s divided politics, it is hard to find anything like the cross-party alliances McCain made with Democrats such as former Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and the late Edward Kennedy (Mass.).

While I do not know Flake so well, he is also worthy of praise for an October speech he delivered on the Senate floor announcing his retirement.

“We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals,” the 54-year-old Flake said. “We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks; the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions; the flagrant disregard for truth or decency; the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.”

Flake wrote a book this year about the danger of Trump’s politics. Its title was Conscience of a Conservative — a nod to his political hero, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.). 

McCain and Flake have risen above name-calling and bitter self-interest by speaking out against the dark forces that are taking over their party and threatening the nation.

People of goodwill from both political parties should hope and pray this holiday season that their example will inspire their GOP colleagues to finally stand up to Trump and the politics of division. 

Juan Williams currently serves as a co-host of FOX News Channel’s (FNC) The Five (weekdays 5-6PM/ET) and also appears as a political analyst on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace and Special Report with Bret Baier. Williams joined the network as a contributor in 1997.