Department of Apostate

What happened to all those Democrats for McCain?

Joseph Lieberman and John McCain in 2000. Click image to expand.
Sens. Joseph Lieberman and John McCain

When Joe Lieberman returned to the Senate after Election Day, the question among many Democrats was not whether he would be punished but how. Some colleagues thought he should be stripped of his committee chairmanships. Others advocated booting him from the caucus entirely. Bloggers on the left all but proposed that he be tarred and feathered, live on C-SPAN. Ultimately, Lieberman got off with a slap on the wrist.

But what about the rest of those “McCain Democrats“? Like Lieberman, few of them are suffering. Maybe it’s because Obama himself says he is uninterested in partisan payback. Or maybe it’s because winners can afford to be gracious. Whatever the reason, most Dems who endorsed McCain have managed to patch things up with friends and fans.  “I don’t think people have been lording it over me,” says former Rhode Island state Sen. David Carlin, who endorsed McCain in May 2008 in an article in Commonweal. “It’s not as if I’ve been going to bed weeping every night.”

“There’s been a little crowing going on,” says Mark Erwin, an ambassador in the Clinton administration who campaigned for McCain in 2008. But of the responses he received, he estimates that only about 5 percent were outright nasty. “One person called me a bigot, another person called me a traitor,” he said. He doesn’t think the endorsement damaged future job prospects—after all, he calls Hillary Clinton a “good friend.” Still, a plum ambassadorship under Obama seems unlikely.

There are exceptions to this tendency to let bygones be bygones. Former Obama speechwriter Wendy Button, for example, expected a negative reaction when she endorsed John McCain on the Daily Beast in October. But she didn’t anticipate the extent of the hostility. The article earned her a mountain of angry e-mails and, according to a follow-up piece, “even a few creepy phone calls.” “You learn who your friends are,” Button told me. “Having a dog, especially a Newfoundland, is a good idea.”

Since the election, some friends have been willing to put the past behind them. Others, less so. “The phone’s really quiet,” she says. “Some of the people on the campaign I don’t expect to talk to again.”

Sympathy came from unlikely places—or likely ones, depending how you look at it. “A day or so after the piece ran, I received a call from [McCain advisers] Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace,” Button wrote in an e-mail. “They were both extremely kind and expressed concern about some of the responses I was getting.  They were going through their own barrage of BS. The fact that they took the time to call and check in. I won’t forget that. They’re good people.”

Button’s case was especially personal: She had worked for Obama (and Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards) in the past and had friends and family on Obama’s campaign. (Tommy Vietor, an Obama spokesman, is her cousin.) So a public break like that may have cut off future job prospects. “Have, say, Democratic Party people reached out or anything like that? No. I don’t expect that.”

Lady Lynn Forester De Rothschild, a DNC member and major Hillary fundraiser, got a similar reaction when she backed McCain. But she let it slide. “I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now,” she says. Sure, her endorsement probably killed any future involvement in the DNC. But, she says,“I was never interested in the DNC or in politicians as any kind of star to hitch my wagon to. I didn’t need it, that’s not why I [went into politics]. I did it because I thought it was a great way to help my country.”

Orson Scott Card, the science-fiction author and registered Democrat, sparked a similar Web backlash when he endorsed McCain just a few weeks before Election Day. But that was nothing compared with the response when he came out in support of California’s Proposition 8. “There are people who have just gone insane,” he told me. ” ‘Card’s this and that. … I’ve burned all his books.’ It really bothers them that someone whose books they liked disagrees with them.”

Since then, fans have calmed down. And so has Card. For him, national security is paramount. And in that area, he says, Obama’s doing great: “Keeping Gates on in defense was a remarkable gesture. What he’s saying now is completely different from what he was saying about withdrawing [from Iraq]. It’s a learning curve.”

Why do some switchers get so much guff while others are virtually ignored? It probably has to do with a few factors. One is how useful the apostates are to the opposing side. “They tried to parade that out as best they could,” says Erwin, referring to the McCain camp. Still, “I didn’t feel like I was being used. I did feel like I was doing the right thing for the country, even though it would cost me some political points.” Paul Johnson, a former mayor of Phoenix, was famous for battling McCain in the 1990s, but he endorsed McCain anyway. “I had some of my very best friends chew me out,” he says. “But that’s OK. I’ve been chewed out before.”

Another factor is the enthusiasm of the endorsement itself. For Democrats whose defection has been halfhearted, the reaction has been less harsh. “My article in Commonweal was titled ‘Two Cheers for McCain,’ ” Carlin explained. “I wasn’t ready to give him three cheers, and by the end I was only giving him one cheer.”

And then there is the issue of expectations: Some Democrats are de facto Republicans already. The McCain Democrats who are having the easiest time are the ones whom everyone expected to endorse McCain.

Take former CIA chief James Woolsey. “I’ve known [McCain] for over 30 years,” says Woolsey. “He was about three years out of prison in 1977 when I became undersecretary of the Navy.” Woolsey calls himself a Scoop Jackson Democrat—”now a Joe Lieberman Democrat,” he says—who supports pro-business fiscal policy and responsible foreign intervention. He has worked for administrations of both parties. In 1992, he endorsed Clinton. In 1996, he endorsed Dole. “I liked him, actually thought he’d be a good president,” he says. “It wasn’t a lot more complicated than that.” He was even John McCain’s adviser on energy and the environment. His endorsement was therefore about as surprising as George W. Bush’s.

Woolsey says it’s silly to get upset about cross-party endorsements. That’s what happens in a two-party system in which both sides are struggling for the middle. “I think everybody’s just gotta relax,” he says.

Indeed, the fear of retribution seems overblown. Friends had told De Rothschild that she would be punished for her apostasy. This occurred to her when, as she was going through customs on Wednesday, an agent approached her: ” ‘Sorry, ma’am, there’s a problem,’ he said. I said, ‘Oh, my God, what is it?’ He said, ‘You’re wearing an Eagles cap.’ ” She sighed with relief. “I thought, ‘It’s true, they do come after you!’ It’s not true.”