Democrats are more dispirited today than they have been in years. It’s not just that President Bush’s approval ratings continue to defy gravity, or that he’s been largely successful in enacting a conservative agenda. Nor is it simply that Democrats seem to lack a fighting spirit and an effective message. It’s not even the distinct possibility that Republicans could retake the Senate this fall, and with it, control of Washington. What’s plaguing so many in the Democratic Party is that looking to the future, there doesn’t appear to be a savior. Presidential aspirants are already lining up for 2004, but so far, no one’s very excited.

It isn’t uncommon for political reporters, at about this point in the election cycle, to size up the field and declare it lacking. But that isn’t the problem. Under normal circumstances, this would have to be considered a tremendous selection: a decorated war veteran (Sen. John Kerry), the most recent vice-presidential nominee (Sen. Joe Lieberman), a popular majority leader (Sen. Tom Daschle), a charismatic Southern senator (Sen. John Edwards), and (let’s face it) the winner of the last presidential election (Al Gore). Sure, each hopeful has liabilities–Edwards lacks experience; Kerry’s a bit slick; etc. And yet these flaws don’t explain why people view the field with despair. Deep down, what worries them is the growing sense that none of these candidates can beat Bush. Doing that will require someone with the perfect combination of qualities: the ability to match Bush’s greatest strength (military leadership), exploit his greatest weakness (shameless ties to special interests), and offer a fresh, appealing agenda of his own. More and more, an honest survey of Democratic contenders suggests that unless the political winds change, the likeliest outcome is: four more years of George W. Bush.

There is an alternative, but it isn’t one that most people have considered. In fact, the best Democrat may be someone who’s no Democrat at all: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). As a war hero who’s hawkish on foreign policy, he more than matches Bush on the military front. As a reform-minded foe of corporate welfare, Big Tobacco, and the Republican right, he is peerless. McCain is Bush’s most vociferous critic, voted against the president’s tax cut, forced his hand on campaign finance reform, and federalized airport security in the face of White House opposition. He has co-sponsored numerous bills with Democrats–many of them in the presidential-aspirant class–requiring background checks at gun shows (Lieberman), a patients’ bill of rights (Edwards), better fuel-efficiency standards in cars and SUVs (Kerry), and expanded national service programs (Bayh). He is even drafting a bill with Lieberman to reduce greenhouse gasses and mitigate global warming. As Ronald Brownstein remarked recently in the Los Angeles Times, “[McCain] has become the most hyphenated name in Washington.”

Given the near hopelessness with which most Democrats view their 2004 prospects, it’s pretty easy, if you’re a Democrat, to make the case that McCain should switch parties outright to pursue the Democratic nomination. The difficult part is imagining McCain making the switch. He is, after all, a lifelong Republican. It’s not clear that he wants to run for president again. And it’s assumed that if he does, it will be as a Republican or, more likely, as an independent. McCain has said that he won’t leave his party sufficiently often that one feels compelled to take him at his word. But his rationale–that he’s a Teddy Roosevelt Republican–has remained fixed, even while he’s gravitated toward moderate Democratic beliefs. His protestations are beginning to ring hollow. He is keenly aware that the GOP is no longer the party of Roosevelt. That an unfailingly pro-business president embodies the party’s moderate wing only underscores the GOP’s drift to the right; there is no room in its ranks for a maverick like McCain. At the same time, McCain has made a dramatic shift leftward. As his vote against the Bush tax cut showed, he is no longer in any meaningful sense a contemporary Republican. It’s time he recognized this and that Democrats exploited it. Because if McCain truly desires to be president, his best chance of winning may be to run as a Democrat.

John McCain’s alienation from the Republican Party and disdain–happily reciprocated–for President Bush has been well documented. Observers caught a rare public glimpse of this recently when Bush grudgingly signed the campaign finance reform bill without a ceremony or even a courtesy phone call to McCain. (The White House mailed him a pen from the bill signing.) As practically the Democrats’ only legislative collaborator, McCain has less and less in common with his Republican colleagues. He counts few friends among the caucus. He hasn’t attended the party’s policy retreat in years. And he’s generally loathed by conservatives. If he sees fit to run as a Democrat, and really wants to stick it to Bush, there’s little to make him stay put.

Like Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.), who became an independent, McCain considered leaving the Republican Party last May. Though it received little attention at the time, the political director for his 2000 presidential campaign, John Weaver, switched parties earlier this year. Right now, McCain’s aides seem more eager than the senator does at the prospect of another presidential run, and that’s likely true of a run for the Democratic nomination as well. But if McCain can’t yet envision such a scenario for himself, says a top adviser, “that’s why he has people like us around.”

Besides his evolving politics and the satisfaction that would come with delivering the ultimate rebuke to Bush, there are plenty of tactical reasons for McCain to consider a switch. The backing of a party organization helps any candidate hoping to knock off a popular incumbent. Independent candidacies are notoriously difficult: Roosevelt left the Republican Party to run as an independent–and lost. In fact, no independent candidate has won a national election in at least 180 years. Those who choose to run anyway often do so merely to raise their stature or highlight their agenda. McCain has already accomplished both. “He raised his profile during the 2000 race, and as campaign finance reform showed, he continues to influence the president’s agenda,” says Weaver. In other words, if he runs, he’ll run to win. Running as a Democrat would likely winnow the field from three candidates to two. Several pollsters told me informally–none had yet polled the issue–that a three-way race between Bush, Gore, and McCain would probably put McCain in second place after Bush. But narrow the field to just Bush and McCain and that changes. “McCain on the ballot as a Democrat could be a very, very intriguing proposition because of what he brings to the party,” says John Zogby, the independent pollster. “His popularity among the growing number of independents is higher than anybody else’s out there. Add to that the fact that his numbers among Democrats are very good–better, in fact, than Daschle and Lieberman do among Democrats.”

To be fair, current polls are mainly a name-recognition game, which partly explains McCain’s prominence against Democratic candidates. But were he indeed to run against Bush as a Democrat, McCain would solidify and expand his Democratic support, and possibly add to his support among independents. If, as expected, the president’s approval rating returns to earth, Bush would find himself in a tenuous position: In a general election, McCain could expect to win most of the Democratic vote and most independent and swing voters as well, leaving Bush with only his conservative base.

While the likelihood of such a run is slim, even advisers who dismiss the scenario do so with an important proviso. “If you ask me, there’s a 99-percent chance it won’t happen,” says Marshall Wittman, a McCain adviser and director of the Project for Conservative Reform. “But that said, I’d support John McCain if he ran on the Socialist-Marxist ticket.” Such loyalty, even among many committed Republicans like Wittman, is characteristic of McCain’s allure.

The prospect of a McCain switch seems a surprisingly popular topic of discussion among Democrats. In my conversations with party leaders and activists, from the most moderate to the most liberal, an interesting pattern emerged. After citing their personal admiration for McCain and offering boilerplate ideologically concerns, nearly everyone asked to speak off the record, and confessed to fantasizing about a switch, as if yielding to some forbidden indulgence. McCain’s appeal to Democratic politicians as a legislative collaborator is not quite so secret. But the mounting concern among party insiders that Al Gore will try again has prompted some discreet political infidelity. “You don’t know how many Democrats come up to me and say, ‘I wish we could get [McCain] to run,’” says a top adviser to McCain. “Some of them are pretty prominent [figures].”

If McCain runs as a Democrat he’ll face a series of primary hurdles. While Democratic primaries have traditionally required candidates to run a gauntlet of liberal interest groups, recent history and political circumstances have lessened the degree to which this is true.

Without question, a McCain run would test the limits of acceptable dissent from the Democratic interest groups–labor, African-Americans, trial lawyers, women–which traditionally hold sway over the primary system. McCain’s biggest handicap is that he is, at least nominally, pro-life. It is not a subject on which he’s outspoken or particularly passionate. (“Do people still think that?” quips a McCain adviser.) But to become a viable nominee, McCain might decide to change his position or at least modify his stance, as many Catholic politicians have done, by stating in no uncertain terms that, while he personally opposes abortion, he does not consider it to be a political issue. Changing one’s position on choice isn’t necessarily prohibitive; both Richard Gephardt and Al Gore were once more conservative on abortion.

McCain has a mixed-but-improving record with labor. Though he voted against Bush’s tax cut, his general economic conservatism all but disqualifies him from earning official union support. But as important to a Democratic candidate as the AFL-CIO’s endorsement is, not all union members follow their leaders. “We were scared by McCain in 2000, frankly, when we heard that union members in some states were rushing to change their registration to vote [for McCain] in the Republican primary,” says a senior union official. These workers “were moved by the image being projected of the freewheeling, tell-it-like-it-is, Straight Talk Express John McCain, and didn’t know a thing about where he stood on critical issues.” Coming from Arizona, McCain’s pro-immigration views mesh with those of union leaders, who consider immigrants potential new members. Likewise, so do his endorsements of whistleblower protection and a patients’ bill of rights, as well as his staunch resistance to a provision limiting unions’ ability to donate to political campaigns (so-called “paycheck protection”) in the campaign finance reform bill. “As a Republican, he’s much better than you’d expect; as a Democrat, he has some work to do,” says Skip Roberts, chief lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union.

That’s a fair assessment of McCain’s rating among many of these groups. Though he doesn’t support affirmative action, McCain had a belated conversion during the 2000 primaries to opposing official displays of the Confederate flag. Furthermore, Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” hedge on affirmative action has made it safer for other Democrats to stop short of full endorsement. While Gore would likely be the most attractive candidate to African Americans, McCain’s military background would resonate with many black voters, who serve in disproportionately high numbers. And if, as seems likely, Al Sharpton pursues a long-shot candidacy, many of the African-American voters who support him will be siphoned from the other candidates, the net effect of which might help McCain. Realistically, how he might fare with black voters is an open question, since Arizona has a relatively small black community.

McCain couldn’t fairly be described as an environmentalist, but he has fought to keep corporate polluters in check and endorsed higher CAFE standards for cars and SUVs–putting him to the left of Gore, who as vice president, endorsed Clinton’s reneging on a campaign promise to raise CAFE standards. His position on abortion doesn’t endear him to women’s groups, but his progressive approach to tobacco, gun control, and a patients’ bill of rights appeals to women generally. Perhaps more promising is that McCain’s presidential run required him to delve into policy areas he’d previously ignored, such as healthcare, education, and the environment. More often than not, this consideration led him to adopt positions on the political center or center-left. “On the campaign trail and in the Senate, McCain was one of the few Republicans to make a forceful, centrist case for saving social security and cutting taxes to help the middle class, not just the wealthy,” says Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Since the campaign, McCain has adopted a similarly moderate-left stance on the patients’ bill of rights. He is also as good as any mainstream Democrat on issues like gun control and fighting tobacco, and better than most at battling corporate excess, which would even appeal to liberals and Naderites.

McCain’s strength on national security could also be an advantage in Democratic primaries. Since September 11, even liberals have become more hawkish and desire a leader with command of the issue.

Even so, McCain’s relative conservatism would surely conflict with the core beliefs and ideology of some liberals. But it’s doubtful that they could stop his candidacy. “It’s a big myth that the Democratic primary system is rigged for a liberal,” says Democratic consultant Paul Begala, citing Clinton’s win as a New Democrat. In fact, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed the startling fact that 53 percent of Democrats held a “favorable” view of McCain; only three percent were “unfavorable.” What’s more, 55 percent of liberals hold a favorable view of McCain’s ideology, versus just five percent who dislike it. Besides, in a contentious primary, McCain holds a trump card. More than anyone else, he’s excelled at the one issue that unites everyone in the Democratic base: opposing Bush. ‘The Democratic base is begging for a leader to emerge, someone who is willing to consistently stand up and fight,’ says Ralph Neas, the president of the liberal organization People for the American Way. After four years of Bush, and faced with the prospect of four more, this “angry Democrat” contingent could be the deciding factor–the “soccer moms” of the 2004 Democratic primaries.

The other noteworthy obstacle presumably facing McCain is the revamped 2004 calendar. After the 2000 campaign, the Democratic National Committee decided to keep pace with the Republican schedule by doing away with the five-week primary blackout that traditionally followed the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, thus allowing states to vote as early as one week later. Several states have long desired such latitude in order to ensure that the nomination won’t already be sewn up before their residents vote. Already, at least six have moved up or appear likely to do so: South Carolina, Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin, Delaware, and Washington.

Political consultants generally agree that the practical effect of this new arrangement favors the Democratic frontrunner. In order to prevail in the early flurry of primaries, this reasoning goes, a candidate must be able to run in seven or eight simultaneously, which requires the kind of money, organization, and name recognition that few challengers can muster. Part of the rationale for these changes was to settle the Democratic nomination early on and begin the general election campaign as soon as possible. Should Gore decide to run again, it’s likely that the new calendar would indeed benefit him, if only because the shortened season will force interest groups to endorse candidates early, which tends to favor a known commodity like Gore.

But the front-loaded primary system also carries new risks that McCain’s Democratic supporters would be wise to point out to him. With the race likely to be determined in the opening weeks, there no longer exists a margin for error. If the establishment choice falters, as Walter Mondale did against Gary Hart in 1984, nowadays he won’t have time to recover; he’ll either win fast or lose fast. This creates the real possibility that a maverick could steal the nomination, much as McCain almost did from Bush in 2000. “[The new calendar] makes the possibility of a candidacy like Gary Hart’s much more plausible,” says Tad Devine, one of Gore’s political strategists in 2000. “It makes someone running against the establishment and the status quo, someone who has an independent-minded message, much more viable in the Democratic primary process.” Paul Begala goes a step further: “If Hart had the calendar that these guys are proposing now, he would have beaten Mondale.”

The second trend in Democratic primaries–one that clearly benefits McCain–is the move over the last decade or so toward opening state primaries to independents, as New Hampshire does. Especially in the South and in parts of the West, state parties that once limited participation to registered Democrats have begun admitting independent and unaffiliated voters. The idea is to bring the fast-growing bloc of independents into the tent, getting them emotionally invested in the party’s primary in the hope that this will carry over to the fall election. States like Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Maine have already done so; others like South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Montana don’t require voter registration, which imparts the same dynamic.

The effect of this on a candidate like McCain who already draws powerful independent support could be considerable, particularly given the probable political scenario in 2004. Because Bush is so strong, he is unlikely to face a serious challenger from within his own party. In open-primary states, independents will naturally gravitate to the Democratic primary. Consider the effect that will have: About 100,000 independents voted in New Hampshire’s Democratic and Republican primaries in 2000, roughly one-third in the Gore-Bradley race, two-thirds in McCain-Bush. Without a Republican contest, most of those 100,000 independents would likely turn out to vote in the Democratic race, all but cinching it for McCain.

In a hypothetical run through the 2004 primaries, going by just these criteria, McCain fares extremely well. He’d probably lose Iowa, but the rest of the short calendar is a pure plus for him. He’d win the open primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina a week later and, with the new cluster of front-loaded primaries, face a quick succession of open-primary states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona. A series of early wins could easily set off a domino effect, giving McCain tremendous–possibly unstoppable–momentum through the decisive early challenges.

All of this hinges on McCain’s ability to switch parties with his credibility intact. Short of that, the rest amounts to political fantasy football. Candidates in the past have successfully switched parties at the congressional level (Phil Gramm, Richard Shelby, Billy Tauzin) and at the local level (Michael Bloomberg), but never before at the presidential level. But if anyone could be expected to survive such a move it’s McCain. “He inspires a loyalty that transcends party identity,” says Zogby. Moreover, the factors that make him so popular–force of personality, “straight talk,” a message of reform–also transcend party and political ideology, which is why he’s been able to evolve and change his positions while gaining popularity. John McCain’s principal appeal is that he’s John McCain.

To be sure, from the moment he switched he would be mercilessly attacked by Republicans, who would howl, at levels normally reserved for Clinton, that such political apostasy was driven by opportunism. No doubt some would listen. But McCain long ago alienated himself from the right and no longer requires its forbearance. Given the appropriate words and circumstances–given “straight talk” about his rationale–McCain would discover a surprisingly receptive constituency. Most Democrats would welcome him as a conquering hero; swing voters and independents wouldn’t much care about party; and the excitement and attention that McCain brings, absent the party today, would foster a Democratic renewal.

The other crowd that might be expected to hammer away at McCain for callous ambition is political reporters and pundits. But if you believe the statistics, they’re centrist Democrats. They certainly swooned over McCain in 2000! In truth, the press would love nothing better. What little ideology burdens them would be dwarfed by journalists’ professional interest in seeing McCain get the Democratic nod: A McCain-Bush race in 2004 would be the ultimate political horserace.

For McCain, it would also be the ultimate gamble, an all-or-nothing roll of the dice to determine the last chapter of his political career. He has already faced a recall petition in Arizona, which leans Republican. If he tries and fails, his life in politics will likely be over. But there’s an excellent chance he’d win. Even the formidable task of announcing his switch plays to his strength. Properly deployed, McCain’s principal attraction–authenticity–could convince millions to follow him, just as it did in 2000. All it would take is one good speech, the ultimate straight talk with America. You can almost hear him:

“For nearly all of my adult life, I have proudly served my country–in uniform and in Congress. It is a great privilege, and I have tried to honor it by asking myself, at every stage: Am I doing the most I can, in the best way that I can, to advance the interests of my country? For 20 years, as a member of the Republican Party, I believed that the answer was yes.

From Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican Party has stood for American greatness at home and abroad–for freedom, honest government, and patriotism above self-interest. I have stood with my party, even when I disagreed with its leadership, because of my belief in these ideals.

But to my profound regret, this Republican White House and the Republican leadership in Congress have abandoned these ideals. They have succumbed to corporate lobbyists and agents of intolerance. They have used the powers of office to protect the special interests, instead of the national interest; to provide pork for defense contractors, instead of weapons for our fighting men and women; to extend privileges to a few, instead of opportunity to all.

I have come to the conclusion that I can no longer best serve my country as a member of the Republican Party. Despite my differences with some Democrats over the years, the Democratic Party is now the standard-bearer of reform. The party that claims that standard may have changed, but not my duty to carry it. Today, America needs a leader who is a force for reform, not a leader who chooses reform only when forced. That is why I stand before you to declare my intention to pursue the Democratic Party’s nomination for president…”

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Joshua Green is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly and author of the forthcoming book The Rebels: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Struggle for a New American Politics.