John McCain, Democrat: An Update

Another push for a sluggish juggernaut.

It’s a week since Chatterbox touted stories in the Washington Monthly and the New Republic arguing that John McCain should run for president as a Democrat in 2004. The idea makes such eminent good sense that you’d think it would be conventional wisdom by now. But it isn’t. Still, it became a bee in Rush Limbaugh’s bonnet today. Limbaugh is apparently convinced that the McCain-as-Democrat meme is a conspiracy engineered by Democratic operatives or by McCain himself:

This stuff just doesn’t happen by accident. Journalists don’t just sit around and dream up stories based on someone’s actions or achievement. An idea is faxed to them and they say, “Hmm, that’s an interesting story idea. I think I’ll run with it.”

Although receiving faxes from the Republican National Committee is presumably Limbaugh’s own technique, Chatterbox is usually more apt to, well, sit around and dream up stories. The sitting-around-and-dreaming-up method is how Chatterbox arrived at the idea that McCain should run for president as a Democrat. Chatterbox, in his capacity as a contributing editor at the Monthly, then passed the idea along to Joshua Green over lunch at the Old Ebbit Grill. (No faxes.) Chatterbox was unaware that the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait was thinking along the same lines. But given the scenario’s compelling logic and the dismaying first stirrings of a Democratic nomination race, Chatterbox is surprised more people didn’t shout “Eureka!” at the same time. He’s also a little disappointed that more haven’t since. Maybe it just needs more time.

One of the more intransigent parties is turning out to be McCain himself. Note this exchange on the April 23 edition of Chris Matthews’ MSNBC program, Hardball:

Matthews: If the Democrats nominate you for president, would you accept that nomination?
McCain: I—I have no—I am very entertained by that …
Matthews: But …
McCain: … but I am—I am a Theodore Roosevelt Republican.
Matthews: I want a Shermanesque statement here, Senator. Are you—would you now …
McCain: You have a
Sherman—you have a Sherman …
Matthews: … on American television, reject a Democratic nomination if offered?
McCain: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Matthews: You’re a Republican till death do you part.
McCain: I—I am a—envision no scenario …

Asked to embrace William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous formulation (“If nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve”), McCain said “yes” three times. He followed that with a fudge (“I envision no scenario”). But the yeses were so emphatic that McCain will be accused of hopping off the Straight Talk Express if he later does decide to run for president as a Democrat.

Chatterbox was heartened to see Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, speak well of the idea, in a sort of good-riddance spirit, on the Journal editorial page’s CNBC chat show. (“McCain should probably do that,” Gigot said. “It’d be truth in advertising, at least.”) E.J. Dionne gave it a cautious semiendorsement on the same program. Morton Kondracke waffled on Fox’s The Beltway Boys (“the Democrats could do worse,” he said in one breath, but “no party accepts a turncoat,” he said in the next, overlooking that former Democrat Phil Gramm entered the 1996 Republican presidential nomination race with a mountain of Republican cash). On the same program, Fred Barnes said that for McCain, “running as a Democrat makes more sense than running as an independent.”

An April 18 MSNBC piece by Tom Curry argued that McCain’s record is too conservative to allow him to run as a Democrat. But McCain’s record has been anything but conservative for the past two years. Just last week he voted against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge! McCain’s Democratic primary opponents would obviously, as Mickey Kaus points out, try to knock off McCain by citing the many conservative stands he took before he started drifting leftward. But it’s far from clear that this strategy would succeed. Another naysayer, the Hill (a Capitol Hill newspaper), editorialized on April 24 that “George W. Bush, has little to fear from McCain or his champions in the Washington pundit corps.” That’s because “McCain proves it’s possible to be a Republican and also, in the words of the NewRepublic, continue to believe ‘in progressive government to counteract the excesses of the market. …’ ” Respectable commentators incline toward this line not because it’s true but because it makes them sound fair-minded. For many in the (yes, generally liberal) Washington press corps, admiring McCain is a way to prove their “objectivity” bona fides, a benefit that would be lost if McCain were to drop the pretense and become a Democrat. This is almost certainly why Elizabeth Drew, for instance, writes in her wildly adulatory new book, Citizen McCain, that McCain “would never be welcome in the Democratic Party.”