Thanks to virtually simultaneous articles last month by Joshua Green in The Washington Monthly and Jonathan Chait in The New Republic, the notion that Republican Senator John McCain should join the Democrats and run for president in 2004 has been everywhere. Indeed, on Hardball host Chris Matthews recently asked McCain himself about the notion. The senator responded, "I am very entertained by that ."
But there's nothing funny about a field of lackluster Democratic candidates, and Green and Chait weren't trying to be entertaining. They were serious, and their articles have received serious response, including from Seth Gitell in the Boston Phoenix, who wrote that "McCain is too socially conservative to run as a Democrat" but argued that the Democratic party needs a candidate with McCain's foreign-policy strengths.
TAP Online invited Chait and Gitell to continue their debate over whether McCain should be the Democrats candidate. We asked Chait to begin with a response to Gitell:
Many people probably find the idea of John McCain running for president as a Democrat to be strange. Where does this come from? In recent weeks, two TAP alumni, Washington Monthly editor Joshua Green and I, have written stories urging this possibility. We both came up with the idea independently; well, actually, Josh got the idea from Slate's Tim Noah, but my point is that it didn't come from McCain or his staff, as some have alleged.
Why would two moderate liberal journalists independently decide that the Democrats should nominate somebody who's currently a Republican? Because McCain has become a Democrat in all but name. Since his primary campaign against George W. Bush, he has undergone an astonishing intellectual transformation, the pace of which has increased over the last year. Since Bush took office, McCain has denounced Bush's signature tax cut -- and on the grounds of distributive justice, not just on the politically-safer ones of fiscal responsibility. In addition to the campaign finance for which he's known, he's co-sponsored a patients' bill of rights and legislation addressing such issues as prescription drugs, gun control, auto-emissions standards, greenhouse gases, federalized airport security, and stock-option reform, among others. His positions on these matters have put him at odds with the business lobby and almost all of his own party, and they add up to an aggressive liberal domestic agenda. I also argue that Democrats need McCain -- his popularity with independents and war hero status make him by far the best choice to beat Bush in 2004.
Seth, I'm gratified that you paid attention to and debated the ideas in my story. Your Phoenix piece suggested two reasons why Democrats wouldn't nominate McCain. Your first objection is that, "[Joshua] Green figures New Hampshire independent voters would swarm into the primary to vote for McCain, but it seems more likely that Granite State independents will flock to support John Kerry, the senator of neighboring Massachusetts." For one thing, I highly doubt this is true. Independents don't historically flock to partisan primaries and if they do, it usually takes something very strong (a charismatic figure such as McCain, for instance) to lure them. The presence of a politician from a neighboring state typically is not enough: Did New Hampshire independents flock to support Mike Dukakis in 1988? Not that I recall. Anyway, even if New Hampshire independents did support Kerry it hardly matters, because there are plenty of other states in the primary. Independent support for McCain is a national phenomenon -- it appeared in South Carolina, Michigan, and elsewhere.
Second and more fundamentally, you argue that his Supreme Court picks would make him unpalatable to Democrats. In my original story, I pointed out that McCain seems agnostic on abortion (for example, he has said he doesn't want to repeal Roe v. Wade.) Also, I wrote, even if he were personally anti-abortion it would have little practical effect (Roe v. Wade is settled precedent) so as long as he were to nominate justices who aren't conservative activists looking to overturn settled law.
You reply by pointing to the example of David Souter, the Bush Senior nominee who ended up affirming Roe. You conclude, "The lesson: you never know for sure how 'moderate' jurists will pan out." Actually, you do know how moderates will turn out: They'll oppose overturning Roe. Clinton's moderate appointees have voted very much like Nixon and Ford's moderate appointees. The important cleavage on the Supreme Court isn't between Republicans and Democrats, it's between activist conservatives and everybody else. As long as a nominee isn't hell-bent on banning abortion -- and you can tell which ones are -- then he or she is likely to side with the "liberals."
From this alone -- these were the only two objections in your piece -- you conclude that McCain can't be the Democratic nominee. But then your article takes a surprising turn, arguing that to win, the Democrats must nominate a candidate as similar as possible to McCain. I agree with you on that. I just don't see why it can't be McCain himself. The two reasons you offered as to why it can't be McCain struck me, obviously, as unpersuasive. But, to be fair, you had far fewer words with which to make your case than I did. So if you have some other arguments as to why McCain shouldn't become a Democrat, I'd love to hear them. [posted 05.02.02]
Jonathan, I think you've caught a case of some very serious wishful thinking.
Not that there's not a kernel of substance in your scintillating idea that
Senator John McCain of Arizona should become a Democrat. There is. It was just last
week, after all, that The Telegraph of Nashua reported that John Weaver, McCain's crack political director during his 2000 presidential run, is in New
Hampshire right now working for none other than Governor Jeanne Shaheen -- a
Democrat! -- who hopes to become the next Granite State senator. Weaver, as
political junkies know, has become disgruntled with the leadership in the Republican Party -- having described them to the Telegraph as "so tied to the corporate elite that they have lost touch with the dreams, aspirations, and concerns of average Americans."
Nice rhetoric. Too bad it wasn't McCain himself who said it. Just to be on
the safe side, I put in a call to Weaver to ask him whether his presence in
New Hampshire on the Democratic side wasn't just an early scouting operation
for the big guy. No dice. "I don't believe John McCain will switch parties
nor do I think he'll have an opportunity to run for president again," Weaver
told me, adding "and the country's worse for it." Message: Where Weaver is
comfortable working for Democrats these days, his former boss still isn't.
The fact is that McCain is too conservative to run as a Democrat.
You contend that McCain's stances on the Bush tax cut, campaign-finance
reform, prescription drugs, etc. render him a natural Democrat. My take on
McCain is that all these stances are consistent with a Republican eager to
reconstitute the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt within the GOP. In fact,
even now McCain's positions on issues such as missile defense, school choice,
Social Security privatization (a favorite Chait obsession), and yes, abortion
make a Democratic candidacy for him impossible. You handle the issue of
abortion by asserting that "McCain seems agnostic on abortion." That's not enough
for a Democratic primary electorate. Spend any time with the folks from
Planned Parenthood or the National Abortion and Reproduction Rights Action League (NARAL). You'll quickly learn that "agnostic" simply doesn't cut it for this vital Democratic constituency. Indeed, McCain's 2000 voting record received a 0 from NARAL. Votes like that will be sure to make EMILY's List happy. Think McCain's more or less supportive position on school choice is helpful? Not at Democratic Convention time when the halls are filled with members of the teacher's unions. Finally, McCain's record on labor issues isn't particularly rousing. The AFL-CIO helped Al Gore win the
popular vote in 2000 -- remember that? -- particularly in key midwestern swing states such as Michigan. A nonplussed labor movement guarantees four more years of George W. Bush.
Your biggest refuge lies in the argument that the Democratic primary has
changed. With so many open primaries, an influx of independents could grant
McCain the nomination and, ultimately, victory against Bush. On paper it
sounds like a good argument. Eight states allow independents to vote as
Democrats on primary day. Another 21 don't have primary party registration;
everybody just votes on the ticket of his or her choice. Here's where it gets less
attractive. Of these 21, more than half are staunchly Republican -- places
such as Texas, Georgia, and Alabama. I've got news for you. The Republicans and
independents in these states already like Bush. They're not going to venture off into the Democratic primary to put their thumb in his eye. If anything,
the Democratic primary voters in most of these states are to the left of
their party's center. For this reason, the Reverend (now also Dr.) Al Sharpton
believes he can do well in some of the southern primary states. Want to ready
the way for the Ralph Nader 2004 campaign? Just nominate McCain.
Jonathan, I commend you for injecting some creative thinking into the
Democratic party right now. I wish I could join you in pushing for McCain to
run as a Democrat. I actually believe the Democrats need a candidate who can
fill at least some of the ideological space of a McCain, especially on
foreign policy. But I'm also a realist who remembers the 2000 campaign. Back
in August of that year Democrats selected as their vice presidential nominee
a candidate who frequently bucked his party's orthodoxies, who had voted for
the Gulf War, who favored some form of experimentation regarding school
choice, and who opposed key constituencies on affirmative action. His name,
of course, was Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and his independence
lasted all of a few hours in Los Angeles until the Democratic base hammered
him into submission (and Lieberman is a candidate whose ratings from
Americans for Democratic Action and League of Conservation Voters are 95 percent and 100 percent compared with McCain's 40 percent and 25 percent, respectively). Good enough? [posted 05.03.02]
Seth, let's go through this point by point. Will McCain become a Democrat? I don't know -- I'd guess the odds are around 30 percent or so. It's strange you seem surprised Weaver is consulting with a Democrat -- as I wrote, he only works for Democrats now, with the "exception" of McCain. Since McCain orders his staff not to speculate on his future, his denial doesn't mean very much. By the way, McCain frequently uses the sort of rhetoric you claim only Weaver employs. According to one newspaper account in February 2000, "McCain continued his attack on his own party, telling the crowds at his stops that Republican leaders are out of touch with mainstream America on a host of issues ranging from tax cuts to managed health care reform." Anyway, my article didn't argue that McCain will become a Democrat, but rather that he should.
Are McCain's positions consistent with somebody who wants to reconstitute the progressive wing of the GOP? Sure. In the same way, Zell Miller's positions are consistent with somebody who wants to reconstitute the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party. Heck, McCain could join the Communist Party and try to move them toward his ideology if he wanted. The important question isn't whether McCain could be consistent as a dissident member of a party. It's which party is more consistent with his views, and the answer is the Democrats, by far.
You point out some issues that would make him a pariah. School choice? Lieberman supported that. Besides, it's not going anywhere, as even Republicans have concluded it's a political loser. Missile defense? Look, Clinton supported missile defense. The only gap there is when to deploy it -- certainly a bridgeable divide. Besides, as we agree, Democrats are going to have to nominate a hawk if they want to win in 2004. Social Security? McCain's position is fine if you look at the details. He supports private accounts funded by general revenue -- essentially what Al Gore proposed during the campaign. What rankles liberals like me is private accounts funded by cutting Social Security benefits. McCain has said Bush's tax cut drained away all revenue to fund private accounts.
That leaves abortion. It's clear from his comments that he doesn't want to criminalize abortion. All he has to do is say so clearly. Now, it's true there are people in the party who think abortion is the only issue in politics and won't settle for anybody who isn't militantly pro-choice. But I don't think they're a majority. The Democrats' rational decision, as I've argued, would be to understand that as long as a candidate doesn't want to criminalize abortion and will nominate moderates to the judiciary, then his personal feelings about abortion aren't terribly relevant. And I think most are rational. As I mentioned in my article, liberals didn't shun Mario Cuomo, who personally opposed abortion.
I'm not sure what you mean about the primaries. Even Republican states have plenty of independents and moderate Democrats. South Carolina is as Republican as they get, and independents (not to mention Democrats) swarmed to vote for McCain in 2000. Would McCain, if nominated, swell the Nader vote? Maybe, maybe not -- but it's irrelevant to the point at hand.
I too remember the 2000 campaign, although I draw the opposite lessons. McCain ran in opposition to the heart of Republican doctrine -- denouncing Bush's tax cut as a giveaway to the rich, for example -- and still came within a whisker of winning the nomination. The only reason he lost was that he faced an opponent who had the unified party backing normally enjoyed by an incumbent president. That won't be the case for Democrats in 2004.
You bring up McCain's old voting record, but that's not a good indicator of his current thinking. The environment is a great example. Over the last year, he sponsored one bill to sharply toughen CAFE standards and another to comply with the Kyoto Treaty -- stands more liberal than even most Democrats were willing to take.
It's funny that you invoke the example of Joe Lieberman -- I was going to bring up Lieberman. It's pretty hard to deny that, since George W. Bush took office, John McCain has been distinctly more liberal than Lieberman. To take one example, McCain has fought for a bill to force companies to treat stock options the same on their financial statements as on their tax forms. Meanwhile, Lieberman -- in his occasional role of carrying water for the business lobby -- has stood firmly in opposition. You mention that Lieberman trimmed his sails when he joined the Democratic ticket. Whether or not that made for an edifying spectacle, the point was it was entirely possible for Democratic voters to accept a candidate who had taken positions with which they disagreed. If Democrats could swallow a pro-voucher, anti-affirmative action, pro-business moderate who's liked by Republicans, couldn't they swallow a feisty progressive reformer who's despised by Republicans? [posted 05.06.02]
Ok, Jonathan. You were happy that I brought up Lieberman. Now I'm happy that you brought up Zell Miller, because that's who McCain becomes if he joins the Democratic primary -- a pro-gun, pro-life oddball who loses even what self-respect and allure he had in the Republican Party. I'll concede to you that McCain no longer fits within the mainstream of the GOP. That doesn't, however, make him a Democrat. It just means he's a Republican outlier.
Your retort to me that McCain is no longer too conservative to be a Democrat fails to hold water. First off, let me concede to you Social Security. If McCain passes the Chait test, that's good enough for me. But I won't concede the rest. Lieberman, you say, supported school choice, and the Democrats let him run for vice president. No they didn't. In case you didn't notice, the Democrats put Lieberman through the meat grinder in Los Angeles on a myriad of issues -- school choice included -- so that he emerged a different candidate than the one who went in. The spectacle was so perverse I even know one Democratic Leadership Council type who wrote in the name "Old Lieberman" on his ballot.
Where your argument really falls apart is on abortion. You seem to refuse to recognize the power this issue holds for key Democratic constituents -- as it should. One area where most of the organized pro-choice groups simply won't tolerate much diversity is on the question of abortion. Start fiddling with it and you risk allowing the Democratic advantage with women to be flitted away. Further, you completely misrepresent Mario Cuomo's position on abortion, which was nothing like McCain's. True, McCain successfully obfuscated his pro-life position during the 2000 presidential campaign; abortion is far from his favorite issue. That said, Cuomo made at least two high-profile speeches on abortion during his time as governor, including one at Notre Dame University in 1984. Cuomo's declared position on abortion was that while he personally opposed abortion, he supported a women's right to choose. This position was highly controversial and caused John Cardinal O'Connor of New York City to threaten him with excommunication.
That sounds a lot different from this statement McCain made in a 1999 letter to the National Right to Life Committee: "I share our common goal of reducing the staggering number of abortions currently performed in this country and overturning the Roe v. Wade position." If McCain were to join the Democratic Party, he'd more likely find himself in the shoes of former Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey, whom the Democrats did not allow to address the 1992 Democratic National Convention. McCain's vaunted candidacy will get far with the Democrats barring him from speaking.
On my point about the Southern primaries, let me be more explicit. Yes, Republican states have plenty of independents and moderate Democrats. And guess what? These are the places where they like Bush. You raise the example of South Carolina. If I remember correctly this is the place McCain's campaign came to a crashing halt. In fact, McCain, who was riding the biggest wave of momentum in many a primary season, lost South Carolina to Bush by more than 12 percentage points. And Bush is more popular today among independents and moderate Democrats because of the war.
You charge that I'm relying on McCain's "old" voting record. But the 25 percent League of Conservation Voters rating comes from his 2001 votes. On the nomination of Gale Norton -- a James Watt wannabe -- as secretary of the interior, for example, McCain voted with Trent Lott and Jesse Helms and against John Kerry and Lieberman.
I'm still not convinced you've made the case that McCain should run as a Democrat. The argument in your favor hinges on the extent that some of McCain's recent reformist tendencies appeal to Democrats and some independents. In this, I suspect, you have been captivated by the siren song of Ruy Teixeira, co-author of America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, who argues that blue-collar whites hold the key to victory. A muscular anticorporate campaign by McCain would electrify these voters.
There may yet be a candidate who can bring these voters into the Democratic fold and retain appeal to traditional Democrats. That candidate is not McCain for the reasons I've outlined. Of course, McCain could try to run as a Democrat. I can imagine him lying prostrate before Ted Kennedy in Boston or wherever the Democratic Convention takes place. McCain could, in theory, pull a Lieberman-plus. He could make a Mario Cuomo-style convention speech where he renounces all his conservative edges and embraces Democratic-style liberalism. But then he wouldn't be McCain anymore. The essence of McCain is courage. And I don't see how pressuring McCain into kowtowing to Kennedy and company allows him to retain that.
Seth, it seems to me like your entire argument is based around ignoring the central evidence underlying my argument. That evidence, to repeat myself, is that on issue after issue, McCain has embraced an activist role for government that puts him to the left of all Republicans and many Democrats. The comparison to Zell Miller is just wacky. Miller is socially conservative, economically conservative, and looks for every opportunity to stick it to the Democrats. McCain is socially moderate, economically liberal, and looks for every opportunity to stick it to the Republicans. McCain is not pro-gun -- he's sponsoring a gun-control bill even as most Democrats run for cover on the issue. When McCain's name came up at the NRA convention last week -- you know, the convention where Zell Miller gave the keynote speech? -- the crowd booed. I can hardly think of a less apt comparison.
I suppose I should explain what I think McCain's view on abortion really is. I think he's personally opposed, but doesn't think the government should ban it. When asked off the cuff about abortion, he's sounded awfully pro-choice -- such as when he said he didn't want to overturn Roe v. Wade, or that he'd let his daughter (then 15 years old) decide whether or not to have an abortion. The analogy with Bob Casey is also extremely inapt -- Casey was passionately pro-life, and wouldn't say such things to save his life.
Yes, every time McCain has made an extemporaneous pro-choice comment, an uproar has ensued among conservatives, and he's been forced to backpedal. But it's pretty likely that his off-the-cuff statements, not his backtracking letters you quote, represent his true views. All he would have to do is explain that he remains personally opposed to abortion, but has come to believe the government shouldn't get involved. That's what Mario Cuomo believed, and that should be good enough for most Democratic voters. Sure, there are some who think abortion is the only issue in politics and it's crucial to nominate a candidate who agrees with them not only in practice but also in theory. But, remember, you don't need 100 percent of the vote to win in the primary.
I agree that there was something perverse about the way Joe Lieberman swallowed his conservative views in 2000. But that's beside the point. The point is that it's possible for Democrats to accept a candidate with apostate views with some fancy political footwork. Does it make the candidate look a little callow? Perhaps, but remember, Lieberman reached the peak of his popularity after making himself acceptable to liberals. These sorts of things happen all the time in politics. You portray it in unrealistically stark terms: McCain "lying prostrate before Ted Kennedy," in your horror scenario, and thus losing his political appeal. What Lieberman shows is that it doesn't work that way: you can send the right signal to party activists without completely losing your appeal to the middle. Yes, there's a little damage, but it's not the Manichean choice you make it out to be.
I continue to find your view of the primaries baffling. In South Carolina in 2000, McCain brought unprecedented numbers of independents and Democrats into the primary, and they supported him overwhelmingly. Yes, he lost to Bush, that's because Republicans massively rejected him. Need I mention that this wouldn't be a problem if he ran as a Democrat? You assert, meanwhile, that moderate Democrats and independents in the South "like Bush." So what? They like McCain even more -- his approval ratings are high among Democrats and through the roof among independents. Meanwhile, lots of Republicans still like McCain, and, with no contested GOP primary, some will cross over to support him. Some will go back to Bush in the general election, but, again, so what? The argument here is whether he could make it through the primary.
I should also further explain my views on McCain's voting record. What he's tried to do is move his party toward the old Teddy Roosevelt style progressive Republicanism. The project has completely failed -- he's influenced exactly nobody in his party -- but it has caused him a great deal of ideological grief. Therefore McCain picks his fights, and (as others have reported) tries to find occasions to support Bush, so that he maintains some shred of credibility in his party. That's probably why he, say, voted for Gail Norton -- he lets Bush pick his own appointees, and fights him on policy. This is another reason why he should leave the GOP -- it will free him from the constraint of having to look like a team player for a team with which he shares little in common.
I also think that you've been arguing around the edges of my thesis. The thrust of my argument -- I encourage readers who haven't to check out my original piece -- is that McCain has come out for liberal positions on a very long list of issues. Furthermore, he now talks openly about activist government to counteract the excesses of the market. Yes, it's possible some interest groups would oppose him because he's moderate (rather than purely liberal) on social issues. But McCain also has an ability to electrify voters that very, very few politicians have. He appeals to rank-and-file labor, he appeals to good-government professionals (the Bill Bradley vote), and he has shown the capacity to bring independents into a partisan primary they'd otherwise ignore. Maybe you see Democratic primary voters as robots controlled by fanatical interest groups in Washington. But I don't think that's true. Maybe McCain will run as a Democrat and prove me right.
Jonathan, given today's Robert Novak column, the thrust of which is that the Democrats are bracing themselves for another run by the Gore-Lieberman team, I can understand your desire to bring McCain into the party. Almost anyone would be more engaging than Gore again (who is indeed beginning to rival Richard Nixon in comeback attempts.)
That point made, allow me to return to your central contention, that McCain's new view of government is much closer to the Democratic than the Republican Party. There is a patina of logic to your argument. Indeed, Elizabeth Drew's new book on the senator, Citizen McCain (Simon & Schuster), chronicles in detail the precise developments you have highlighted, in particular McCain's vital role in the passage of campaign finance reform legislation. Compelled, in part, by your arguments, I put them to Drew, to whom McCain granted significant access. She rejected them, saying McCain would never do it. In her book, she writes that McCain's own sense of loyalty to his conservative Arizona base would never permit him to switch parties. For McCain, personal loyalty --not unthinking party discipline, mind you -- is sacrosanct.
I've nit-picked your counter-arguments enough. I'll forgo doing that again and opt to emulate something you did in your first piece: Come up with some ideas to help invigorate the Democratic Party -- without McCain at the helm.
One idea I've been hearing up in Boston goes like this. The Democratic Party could never allow McCain to head up a ticket. He's too conservative. But he could run on a Democratic ticket with John Kerry. This idea is being pushed by former Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan. While nobody knows whether McCain would do it, I find the idea appealing on several levels. First it negates the problem that so vexed me -- and doesn't seem to phase you -- about the primaries. My point on the primaries was that there are enough closed primaries to make a cross-party presidential run for McCain impracticable. Yes, at the primary stage, interest groups still matter, as you know. But the beauty of the Kerry-McCain ticket is that it represents the best of both worlds. A solidly-pro-choice, environmentally-astute Democrat faces the primary electorate and then a double Vietnam war hero ticket gets to face off against the double chicken hawk ticket -- exactly what the Democrats need in time of war. Even better, this scenario allows the Democrats to run what is in effect a "national unity government" from within their own party.
I grant you this too might be fanciful, but it holds enough allure to raise it as a suggestion. If it doesn't work, my thinking is this. The Democrats do need a candidate who in many ways resembles McCain -- both in his reformist tendencies and on foreign policy. In your original piece, you very wisely wrote about the tradition of Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson in the Democratic Party. Jackson tacked to the right on foreign policy and to the left on domestic issues. (Imagine how the world would have been different if Jackson, who beat Jimmy Carter in Massachusetts, had been the Democratic nominee in 1976. A Democrat -- not Ronald Reagan -- may have ended up being responsible for ending the Cold War.) I think one aspect of Jackson you miss is how progressive he was on social issues. Jackson was, if not the best, one of the best friends the American labor movement had in the U.S. Senate. Even if he became a Democrat, as you suggest, McCain would not rival Jackson in this area.
Lately -- with Bush appearing to be outfoxed by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and the existence of Israel at stake -- I've been giving a lot of thought to the need for the Democrats to update the Scoop Jackson legacy within their party. It seems to me, in addition to possessing the view of the role of government you suggest, a successful Democratic nominee has to have a proud record of achievement on some of the social and environmental issues that are at the center of the party's appeal to many people. A winning Democrat needs to be a strong voice for choice, gay rights, clean air, etc., in addition to issues, such as civil rights, that Jackson stood for.
The environment, in particular, represents an area where the Democrats can naturally embrace their Scoop Jackson heritage (click here for more on Scoop Jackson and the Democrats). One obstacle faced by the Bush Administration in its War on Terror is Saudi Arabia. The weight the Bush team places on its relationship with the al-Saud family seems inextricably tied to American consumption of oil. One way the Democrats can play to their strengths on the environment and outflank Bush on the war is by pushing more aggressively for energy efficiency. There are a host of energy proposals ready to be picked up by the Democrats that would be cleaner for the environment and work to diminish American dependence on foreign oil -- which, in turn, would enable the country to confront the nation from which 15 out of 19 of the September 11th hijackers came and, possibly, save American lives.
I don't know which Democratic presidential candidate will help the party take up this message. Maybe it will be the Gore-Lieberman team, maybe it will be Kerry. Who knows. I just don't think it will be McCain.