The Time We Tried to Convince John McCain to Run as a Democrat

In 2002, it wasn’t as crazy as it sounds today. And it could have made a lasting difference on our politics.

In 2002, then Washington Monthly editor Joshua Green wrote a story arguing that John McCain should run for president as a Democrat. While the idea seems impossible in retrospect, Green made a strong case for what he called The Big Switch. At the time, Green argued, McCain was “Bush’s most vociferous critic,” one whose reputation for ideological independence had some grounding in reality. McCain had, Green wrote, “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).” The late senator’s affinity for bipartisan policy was even on display in this magazine, for which McCain wrote a 2001 article calling on the U.S. government to provide more service opportunities for young Americans and praising Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps program.

Green’s vision, of course, was not to be. When McCain ran for president again in 2008, he ran as a conservative—not as the maverick that Jon Stewart said he would have voted for over Gore. His later years were marked less by independence and more by routine support for the Senate Republican leadership. Even so, McCain provided occasional glimpses of his old brand. The senator was one of the few Republicans’ whose opposition to Trump had material consequences, most notably when he dramatically sunk the GOP’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

I recently spoke to Green—now the senior national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek—about his story and the trajectory of McCain’s career. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity:

HS: Why did you think that McCain would make a good challenger to Bush?

JG: At the time, Bush was kind of at the height of his popularity, and he didn’t have any obvious challenger for 2004. McCain had caused the media and lot of voters to swoon with his original maverick run for president, and McCain didn’t think a lot of Bush.

HS: In your story, you note that McCain was a “lifelong Republican.” He may have disliked Bush, but do you really think he would have considered jumping ship?

JG: The party was moving pretty strongly to the right on a lot of issues. Watching his frustration and seeing how national politics was shaping up, it just seemed to make a lot of sense. Not only would the Democratic Party have been a better home for him—he could say truthfully that the Republican Party was sort of leaving him behind.

HS: Given all the progressive energy in the party today, can you explain to readers why you think Democrats in the mid-2000s would have accepted him?

JG: Back then, the two parties weren’t quite as polarized as they are now, and so I think there’s reason to believe that McCain would have been embraced by a significant chunk of the Democratic Party, if only as a rebuke to George W. Bush and all that he stood for. There was still enormous anger at Republicans and Bush for having stolen the 2000 election. Having McCain defect to the Democrats would have been meaningful, and it would have immediately given them a heavyweight presidential candidate in 2004. Kerry was a stiff. McCain, on the other hand, had a proven record of being an exciting maverick.

HS: Did you ever approach McCain with your idea?

JG: We went to some event that McCain was going to be at, and he was there with his family. I asked McCain about it, and he sort of angrily grunted something like “buzz off.” But his wife Cindy McCain and his daughter Megan McCain, I think, were clearly into the idea. I don’t remember what they said, but it was enough to kind of endorse at least the discussion of party-switching.

HS: When you wrote your story, McCain was still fresh off his failed 2000 presidential candidacy. What was your sense of what he wanted?

JG: Basically, McCain was at a career crossroads. He was a very ambitious guy and still had thoughts of getting to the White House. He was kind of at a fork in the road. He could either take the advice that Jonathan Chait [who wrote in 2000 that McCain seemed to be drifting leftward] and I were offering: become a Democrat and pursue a path which I think would have been plausible. Or he could do what he ended up doing: swallowing his principles, hewing to the party line, making peace with party leaders like Bush and Mitch McConnell, who McCain had feuded with for years and years, and resurrect your White House ambitions by becoming a kind of colorful version of a typical Republican nominee—which is what McCain became in the 2008 election.

HS: What impact do you think McCain’s decision to become a more standard Republican had on his legacy?

JG: In 2002, he was someone viewed as a man of principle, a maverick who stood up against his own party. But even in his 2000 candidacy, there were signs that he would drift right. There were small things he did in that race. There was a controversy over flying the Confederate flag and McCain, I think for political reasons, said something to the effect of “Yeah, it’s fine.”

Later, he publicly regretted it and tried to recant. He’d realized that he had said that merely for political gain and had betrayed his principles. He tried to kind of cleanse himself by publicly flip-flopping back to an anti-Confederate flag position. But that kind of set him off on a series of compromises with his underlying principles that led him to become the candidate in 2008 that got smoked by Obama.

HS: What impact do you think 2008 had on McCain and his politics?

JG: All along, he has valued his maverick reputation. He recognized after his 2008 loss that he’d lost that. The way in which he comported himself and ran that race had discredited the image that he held of himself as this pure and principled figure who would never bow or compromise his principles for the lowly business of politics.

There was an effort afterward to kind of revive some of his maverick tendencies. The health care vote was an important vote and helped restore that legacy to an extent. But even though he talks smack on the Sunday shows sometimes, he voted more or less as a standard Republican after 2008. So I think the height of his maverick period was really in 2002 when I wrote that article. Afterward, he kind of drifted over into becoming a colorful but mainstream Republican conservative.

HS: Let’s say McCain had taken your advice and run as a Democrat against Bush. What would have changed?

JG: I think if McCain had run as the Democratic nominee and won in 2004, it’s hard to imagine the country would be anywhere near as polarized as it is. The lesson of his hypothetical election would have been that if a Republican strayed too far or too extreme under George W. Bush, they would have lost the center of the country and even some of the moderate members of their own party, like McCain. This would have instituted, for a number of years at least, a set of guardrails that might have forestalled the partisan polarization we’ve seen ever since.

Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is an intern for the Washington Monthly.