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Can the Dems draft McCain?

TUESDAY, APRIL 23, 2002 — With the New Hampshire presidential primary less than two years away, two Democratic-leaning publications — the Washington Monthly and the New Republic — are pushing the same intriguing idea: Arizona senator John McCain should run for president in 2004 as a Democrat.

Both Joshua Green of the Washington Monthly and Jonathan Chait of the New Republic make compelling arguments as to why the Democrats should invite McCain into their party, à la Jim Jeffords. McCain is disliked by conservative Republicans, has co-sponsored legislation with Democrats, and appeals to white male blue-collar workers.

As much as I admire McCain — I couldn’t help but think of him this weekend, when I visited a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Scottsdale in his home state of Arizona — I don’t put much stock in the idea of his running as a Democrat. The Washington Monthly’s 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.

Furthermore, McCain is too socially conservative to run as a Democrat — a point the New Republic’s Chait minimizes, writing that "Roe v. Wade is settled precedent. Keeping it from being overturned doesn’t require liberal, pro-choice Supreme Court justices. It merely requires moderates who respect established precedent." But you never know which way moderates will go. The first president Bush was surprised when the independent-minded moderate whom he nominated to the high court, David Souter, emerged as an important pro-choice vote on the court. The lesson: you never know for sure how "moderate" jurists will turn out.

The fact that both Green and Chait are promoting the idea of McCain’s Democratic candidacy now, however, is significant. Both writers believe that none of the Democrats currently considering a presidential run — North Carolina senator John Edwards, Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman, Massachusetts senator John Kerry, former vice-president Al Gore — has really caught on. But there’s a more important point to consider: none of these candidates has yet been able to articulate a foreign-policy vision that can compete with President George W. Bush’s. None has been fully able, for instance, to articulate the source of Bush’s wavering in the War on Terror, which stems from his attitude toward Saudi Arabia. Bush’s foreign-policy Achilles’ heel is that he continues to treat the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a friend rather than a foe. His administration has been willing to criticize Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein for giving money to the families of suicide bombers in Israel but has been strangely silent on the Saudis’ running a telethon to do exactly the same thing. The Bush family is as addicted to its alliance with the Al-Saud family as the American SUV-driving public is to Saudi oil.

There’s room for a Democratic presidential candidate who 1) embraces a muscular US foreign policy; 2) stops equivocating on the question of violence between Israel and the Palestinians (see William Safire’s "Democrats and Israel" column in yesterday’s New York Times. Safire praised Kerry, Lieberman, and Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt for speaking out "against the liberals’ crusade to force Israel to abort its clean-up of terrorist nests"); 3) is willing to stand up the Saudis; and 4) offers a concept of energy independence. I believe one of the existing candidates will emerge to fill this ideological space. Lieberman has been up in New Hampshire talking like a Scoop Jackson Democrat. And Kerry, with his veteran’s credentials, would be ideally suited to play this part.

Whoever the candidate turns out to be, he or she must be one of the Democrats. If the Democrats don’t offer up a candidate with the foreign-policy credibility to attract independent voters, they will lose. Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic Leadership Council–affiliated think tank, tells the Phoenix that a successful Democratic nominee must fill some of McCain’s ideological space. "Not only does the space exist on the Democratic side, but there’s no other plausible theory under which the Democrats can unseat George Bush," says Marshall. "They need to have somebody who can appeal to independent swing voters. People who aren’t Democrats."

If it can’t be the real McCain, the Democrats need one of their own. Who will it be?

Issue Date: April 23, 2002
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