McCain, Democrat?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 17 2002 7:14 PM

Come Home, McCain

The Washington Monthly and New Republic are right: McCain should run for president as a Democrat.

John McCain
John McCain 

The Washington Monthly and the New Republic both have, in their forthcoming issues, articles arguing that John McCain should seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. The two pieces, by Joshua Green and Jonathan Chait, respectively, are now posted on the Web. Click here for the Monthly version and here for the New Republic version. Chatterbox finds both articles highly persuasive. (Full disclosure: It was Chatterbox who, in his capacity as a Monthly contributing editor, first suggested to Green that he write such a piece. Chait came up with the idea independently, partly as a follow-up to his January 2000 piece, "This Man Is Not a Republican.")

There are three basic reasons why McCain should run for president as a Democrat. The first is that the current Democratic field is looking pretty dismal. Chatterbox actually fell asleep last week watching C-SPAN while the front-runner, Al Gore, rousted Florida Democrats with his speech denouncing the "right-wing side-wind." (Click here to read our "Explainer" on what "right-wing side-wind" means.) Gore would probably make a fine president, but in 2000 he proved himself to be a terrible candidate under circumstances that could not have been, and never again will be, more favorable. It would be foolish to give him a second chance. Unfortunately, as Green points out, the two main alternatives, Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry, don't seem particularly plausible, either.

The second reason why McCain should run as a Democrat is that McCain is no longer in any meaningful sense a Republican, even a maverick Republican. He was barely one in 2000 when he ran for president, and since then, he's moved steadily leftward. Chait notes that since Bush came into office, McCain has worked with Democrats to pass campaign-finance reform and to make airport security a function of the federal government. He's also worked with Democrats on a patients' bill of rights, on greater access to generic drugs, and on expanding AmeriCorps. (This last position is unpopular with congressional Republicans, though Bush has signed on to the general idea.) Green notes that McCain's support for raising automobile fuel-efficiency standards actually puts McCain to the left of Gore, who helped Bill Clinton renege on his campaign promise to boost fuel efficiency. On the most significant vote of the Bush administration—the tax cut—McCain positioned himself to the left of Republican-turned-Independent Jim Jeffords. Jeffords voted for the tax cut; McCain voted against it. Thankfully, McCain has also dropped his opposition to taxing e-commerce, a lurch toward fiscal irresponsibility for which he received altogether too little grief during the 2000 campaign.

At this point, it's a struggle to think of any issues where McCain still lines up with Republicans. There's abortion, which McCain opposes. At this point, though, McCain's opposition is pretty nominal. Chait points out that during the campaign, McCain said, "certainly in the short term or even the long term I would not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade." He backed down after this caused a furor, but you didn't see him discussing the subject much after that. On stem-cell research, which has become for many pro-life activists a proxy for the abortion issue, McCain reversed himself this past year, Chait reports; he's now in favor of it. McCain favors the death penalty, but that's not as much of a dividing line between Democrats and Republicans as it used to be. McCain is not especially keen on affirmative action, but neither was Bill Clinton. That didn't stop Clinton from becoming wildly popular among African-Americans. McCain has what Green calls a "mixed-but-improving record with labor," but, Green points out, McCain is fairly popular with the union rank and file, and he could woo union leaders with his support for liberalizing immigration (these days labor is less apt to see immigrants as a threat and more likely to see them as potential union members) and whistle-blower protection.

McCain is a hawk, which theoretically puts him at odds with Democrats. In reality, though, Democrats have been quite supportive of the war on terrorism (the enemy did, after all, attack us first), differing from Republicans mainly in their lack of eagerness to go to war with Iraq. But this dispute is not especially ideological since Democrats would like just as much as Republicans to see an end to Saddam Hussein's regime. What Democrats object to is the damn-the-consequences breeziness of the Republican hawks, almost none of whom have any firsthand military experience, let alone battle experience. McCain, having lived through some of the worst things that can happen in wartime, could be trusted not to take lightly his role as commander in chief.

Another sense in which McCain is no longer a Republican is that he's profoundly alienated from the Republican leadership. It isn't just that there's little love lost between McCain and his rival from 2000, George W. Bush. McCain also loathes Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott. During the 2000 primary campaign, "Lott said some of the most malicious things I've ever heard," McCain complains to Al Hunt in a chapter about McCain and Russell Feingold in a new book edited by Caroline Kennedy, Profiles in Courage for Our Time. The book, which updates John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage with contemporary examples of political heroism, profiles only one person who might plausibly be described as a presidential hopeful, and that's John McCain.

The third reason McCain should run as a Democrat is that the Republican Party McCain claims allegiance to—the party of Teddy Roosevelt—no longer exists at the national level. It's doubtful it existed even before Bush was elected, and it certainly doesn't exist now. As Green puts it, "That an unfailingly pro-business president embodies the party's moderate wing only underscores the GOP's drift to the right." This is the party, after all, that eliminated the inheritance tax, a notion that was scarcely even discussed during the heady days of the Reagan Revolution.

There are, to be sure, skeptics. Interestingly, though, Chait reports that they're almost invariably Republicans, who obviously don't have the Democratic Party's best interests at heart. (Democrats tend to like the idea rather a lot.) It's no surprise that Andrew Sullivan, who's grown more conservative since his stint as the benign Tory editor of the NewRepublic, scorns the scenario as a fantasy dreamed up by "a bunch of desperate Washington lefties." But it is mildly surprising to see Green quote McCain policy jock Marshall Wittman saying that he'll support McCain no matter what ticket he's on. Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, a McCain booster in 2000, told Chatterbox he doesn't believe McCain could ever mesh with the Democrats ("the problem isn't McCain; the problem is the Democratic Party"). But if McCain actually got the Democratic nomination, he conceded that he'd have a tough time deciding what to do. "I could go back to being a Scoop Jackson Democrat," he mused.

[Update, April 18:  Having tried, and failed, to extract a comment from McCain's Senate office yesterday, Chatterbox phoned again today. McCain spokesperson Nancy Ives confirmed that McCain staffers had read the Monthly story, the New Republic story, and the foregoing Slate item. "No one's taking it seriously over here," she said. "We think the heat wave might have warped the minds of journalists." Astute readers will observe that this is a less-than-Shermanesque denial that McCain will accept the Democratic nomination.]

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.