The Men Who Would Be McCain

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Despite high-profile recruitment by the New Republic and the Washington Monthly, John McCain has evinced no public interest in the 2004 Democratic nomination for president. But the McCain fans in the Democratic Party needn’t worry. If he doesn’t run, somebody else will run as him. After all, multiple candidates are already vying to take his place. The continuing admiration that independents and New Hampshire Democrats have for McCain is prompting a Spartacus-style competition among the actual contenders—“I’m John McCain! No, I’m John McCain!”

As the shadow campaign leading up to Iowa and New Hampshire accelerates, many of the likely Democratic candidates are aggressively framing themselves as the heirs to McCain’s irascible, straight-talkin’, media love-in candidacy. It’s the McCain-ing of the presidency: Each candidate wants to lay claim to the moderate and independent voters that McCain captivated in 2000, and each has a different take on how to do it.

So far, the front-runner in the campaign for the McCain mantle is John Kerry, the candidate most overtly fashioning his campaign after McCain’s. He’s running as The Vietnam War Hero, betting that McCain voters prefer biography to ideology. Like McCain, Kerry has a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart. And as Michael Crowley details in a June 3 cover story for the New Republic, Kerry now wants to supplement his war hero credentials with a McCain-esque role as a no-BS Mr. Media Accessibility. He’s even adopted a bit of the Self-Flagellating Apologist, telling Crowley, “When I first got into politics I was quite brash, and I made some mistakes.”

Even the criticisms lobbed at Kerry are reminiscent. Like McCain, he’s criticized as a Preening Show Horse who’s not very good at the messy business of legislation. Crowley says Kerry has “a degree of personal manifest destiny and self-love rare even among politicians.” Sound familiar? Granted, Kerry is a Massachusetts liberal, not a centrist, but even that may work in his favor. Since Bush’s inauguration, McCain has been acting like a Massachusetts liberal, too!Kerry even married rich, like McCain. (Kerry was also born to privilege, but not as much privilege as the Heinzes, his second wife’s family.) What may hurt Kerry most among McCainiacs is not his blue blood but his reputation as a relentless opportunist, especially the deadly anecdotes about him filming himself in combat during Vietnam and throwing other veterans’ medals onto the Capitol steps during a protest against the Vietnam War. McCain Factor: 7 (on a scale of 10).

The second shameless McCain imitator is a long-shot candidate for the nomination but a solid contender to become the McCain Democrat. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is promoting himself as The Straight-Talking Independent. “I’m going to have a lot of appeal to McCain voters,” Dean told the Associated Press last week, citing his diverse positions on an array of issues. “I’m a guy who signed the most far-reaching gay rights bill in the country. I’m a fiscal conservative. I believe in universal health care and I have an A from the National Rifle Association.” He added, “I truly, honestly believe that my directness and my unwillingness to bend for the most part for political reasons is going to be a quality that I’m going to have the corner on the market on out there.” Dean also employed some of McCain’s self-deprecating humor to describe his quixotic crusade: “To say there is a groundswell out there would be a gross exaggeration.” Dean established a presidential candidate committee Wednesday, which he declared was yet more evidence that he was more truthful than his fellow candidates: “It’s really difficult to try to pretend you’re not running for president when you are,” he told the Boston Globe. Dean has already signed up some McCain 2000 organizers from Upstate New York. McCain Factor: 6.

The Maverick Campaign Reformer, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, is so closely affiliated with the Arizona senator he jokes that people think his first name is “McCain” (after the McCain-Feingold bill). Feingold shares McCain’s tendency to buck his own party. He was the only senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act and the only Democrat on the Judiciary Committee to vote for John Ashcroft’s nomination for attorney general. But Feingold’s Naderish leanings on trade and globalization may alienate the more conservative voters whom McCain appealed to. McCain Factor: 5.

Joe Lieberman could claim McCain’s campaign title of The Foreign Policy Hawk or his post-election reputation as The Scoop Jackson Democrat. Lieberman has staked out territory to the right of Bush on the war on terrorism, backing ground troops in Afghanistan and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Some of Lieberman’s views—like McCain’s—are out of the mainstream of his own party. And like McCain, he’s sometimes viewed more fondly by those on the other side of the aisle than by those in his own caucus. He’s also a frequent issuer of joint calls for action with McCain, including a cap on greenhouse gases, an independent commission to investigate Sept. 11, and closing the gun-show loophole on background checks. But Lieberman lacks McCain’s POW machismo, and having served as Gore’s vice presidential candidate takes away some of his independent luster. McCain Factor: 5.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has already stolen one crown from McCain: The Media Darling. He’s a frequent TV guest and magazine cover boy, but now he wants to add to that a reputation as The Lobbyist-Bashing Populist. USA Today’s Walter Shapiro reported last June that Edwards has an “evident fascination with McCain’s maverick presidential crusade,” and his frequent trips to New Hampshire show it, though he hasn’t mentioned the “Iron Triangle” yet. During a February trip to the Granite State, Edwards frequently mentioned McCain in an effort to pitch himself to voters as a reformer and an outsider, according to the Baltimore Sun, and the New York Times reported that Edwards “presented himself as a populist outsider from a working-class background who as president would defend the people from ‘powerful lobbyists.’ ” Problem with this approach: Edwards is starting to sound like Al “I Want To Fight for You” Gore, not John McCain. McCain Factor: 3.

Finally, a few one-in-a-million possibilities: Tom Daschle as The Target of a Smear Campaign by the GOP Establishment, Al Gore as The Man Who Lost the 2000 Presidential Election to George W. Bush, and John McCain as No Really I Am John McCain. But let’s be realistic. None of them has a chance. McCain Factor: 0.