When John McCain Was a Democrat (Almost)

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Over the weekend, John McCain led the fight against repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (unsuccessfully) and the Dream Act (successfully), the latter of which McCain himself originally sponsored. Afterward, Joe Klein unloaded both barrels on him--"a troglodyte," "puerile and feckless"--bitterly wondering what became of the man he once admired.


It's a good question. McCain has gotten a lot of richly deserved criticism for abandoning a whole host of what had seemed to be staunchly held positions for reasons of political expediency--to fend off a primary challenge from the right. But to my mind, even this criticism doesn't capture the full distance of the ideological journey McCain has traveled over the last six or seven years. I'm particularly sensitive to this journey because I wrote a big piece about McCain right around the time he was at his leftward-most extreme, in mid 2002--a time when Democrats were still suffering through the hangover of Al Gore's loss and McCain seemed a mighty and principled war hero, the "maverick" who had just confronted his party's right wing and almost prevailed. 

My piece was a cover story for The Washington Monthly suggesting that McCain's best shot to become president was to switch parties and pursue the Democratic nomination--an idea that sounds insane today, but that was plausible enough then that Jon Chait made a similar argument in the New Republic (can't find a link). At the end of the piece, I even supplied the party-switching speech that I imagined McCain could give.

Here was my nutshell case for why McCain was functionally a Democrat: 
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. 

I wonder if he still holds a single one of those positions? I guess it would be tough for even McCain to find a reason to flip-flop on expanding national service programs. Then again, that was always a Clinton favorite--and at this point, I wouldn't put anything past him. What I wonder about most, though, reading back over the piece today, is why McCain didn't do it--why he didn't go Democrat? 

Back then, the answer seemed to be that it would have smacked of political expediency and offended his sense of honor and dignity. But obviously that wasn't it.

Thumbnail image credit: Getty Images
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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