If Only John McCain Had Run as a Democrat

In 2002, it wasn’t as implausible as it sounds today.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

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In 2002, as Democrats were struggling for a way forward during what, in hindsight, was Peak George W. Bush, I became consumed with the question of how the party could ever hope to defeat an extraordinarily popular wartime president. Bush had run in 2000 as a bipartisan-minded “compassionate conservative” without evincing much ambition for what he hoped to achieve in the White House. Thanks to a friendly Supreme Court, he landed there anyway, despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore. 

Bush’s presidency was flagging until the September 11th terrorist attacks remade U.S. politics. In their wake, Bush remade himself into the person we remember today: the hyper-aggressive foreign policy hawk who, egged on by Dick Cheney and his own misplaced sense of destiny, would soon launch ill-fated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In early 2002, Bush seemed utterly impregnable. When I sat down to write “The Big Switch” for the Washington Monthly, his Gallup approval rating was 80 percent. At the same time, the Democrats lining up to challenge him in 2004—including John Kerry, Tom Daschle, and John Edwards—looked to me and the other Monthly editors like a band of hapless milquetoasts, a sentiment Paul Glastris had captured with an iconic March 2002 cover story, “Why Can’t the Democrats Get Tough?” As I wrote a few months later, “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.”

So I took it upon myself to anoint a Democratic savior: Republican Senator John McCain. 

The idea that Democrats might nominate a Republican wasn’t nearly as crazy as it sounds today. Back then, all sorts of fascinating prehistoric creatures roamed the American political landscape: pro-life Democrats; liberal hawks; Republicans who weren’t blinkered cultists; and actual living, breathing centrists who existed in great enough number to fill entire restaurants or even arenas. The parameters of U.S. politics were much narrower then—most Republicans believed in climate change, most Democrats were hawks. Issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal weren’t even a blip on the horizon. Gay marriage was considered too risqué for any serious presidential aspirant to support. There was still such a thing as a “political middle,” and you had to carry it to win the White House. 

McCain was fresh off his insurgent run against Bush in the 2000 Republican presidential primary, the crusade that established his “maverick” reputation and made him a celebrity. He loved playing the role of Bush foil. He was a war hero in a time of war. He voted against Bush’s tax cut and fought to curb money in politics. His best buddy, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, was a Democrat. All that, I argued, gave him credibility on both sides of the aisle to take on Bush. Believing my essay would need a strong measure of verisimilitude to be persuasive, I even enlisted a top Democratic speechwriter to help write a “speech” that I included for McCain at the end of my article, which cited Lincoln and Roosevelt to justify his decision to leave the GOP.

Looking back now, 2002 is probably the last moment at which the notion of Democrats nominating a moderate Republican like McCain was just plausible enough that you couldn’t dismiss it out of hand. In fact, I wasn’t the only one who landed on the idea. The day after the Monthly published my cover story calling on McCain to switch parties, Jonathan Chait echoed the call in the New Republic (in those days before instant web publishing, we’d both been laboring, unbeknownst to us, on similar print pieces).

For a brief moment, McCain-as-a-Democrat was a live idea. His chief strategist, John Weaver, had already switched parties after being blackballed by Karl Rove. At a Washington event after my story appeared, Cindy McCain told me that she and her daughter, Meghan, would love her husband to switch parties and run. The legendary Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote an uncharacteristically huffy column attacking Chait and me for floating such an outlandish idea. But it wasn’t. Behind the scenes, a contingent of centrist Democratic strategists and politicos was actively lobbying for the switch. 

At a Washington event after my story appeared, Cindy McCain told me that she and her daughter, Meghan, would love her husband to switch parties and run.

Alas, McCain never made the leap, although I have no doubt that part of him longed to do it. Imagining what would have happened remains a fascinating exercise in historical counterfactual. I still think he would have won. He’d obviously have continued prosecuting the Iraq War, so perhaps he’d have ended up tarnishing the Democratic brand and ushering in liberal, Republican peacenik Mitt Romney in 2008. We’ll never know!

What we do know is that, within a very short time, such a switch became inconceivable. Partisan polarization, already well underway, exploded in the years afterward. Part of what prompted me to write the piece was that you could measure the political center I wanted McCain and the Democrats to lay claim to. My favorite metric is National Journal’s congressional vote ratings, which plot the 435 House members along an ideological continuum from liberal to conservative. In 2002, there were 137 members in the political “middle”—that is, the overlap between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican. Ten years later, the middle had shrunk to ten members. By 2018, it was gone. It’s no accident that the energy in the current Democratic presidential primaries is on the left.

McCain seemed to sense the change coming. Four years after our story, he willed himself into becoming the sad simulacrum of a standard-issue Republican that captured the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. You could tell his heart wasn’t in it. To compensate, he foolishly chose as his running mate Sarah Palin, the Patient Zero of Trumpism, who supercharged the ugly partisanship that was already on its way to eclipsing McCain’s brand of politics.

Although McCain didn’t heed my advice, and the “maverick” label curdled into a liberal sneer toward the end of his life, lurking somewhere deep within was the politician who inspired our cover story. In 2017, as Trump and the Republicans prepared to abolish the Affordable Care Act—the greatest Democratic achievement in a generation—the old McCain mustered one final act of rebellion. With repeal riding on a single vote in the Senate, McCain walked to the floor and cast a dramatic thumbs-down, killing the effort and earning Trump’s undying enmity. 

In a small way, I viewed the episode as validating our long-forgotten story. McCain hadn’t run for president as a Democrat. But at the critical moment, when the fate of millions hung in the balance, he went ahead and voted like one.

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Joshua Green

Joshua Green is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek, a CNN political analyst, and the author of Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2001 to 2003.