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McCain twice flirted with the Democratic Party

John McCain has twice flirted with the Democratic Party: His discussions in 2001 about leaving the Republican Party, and his conversations in 2004 about running with John Kerry.
Image: John Kerry and John McCain.
Senators John Kerry, left, and John McCain meeting with reporters in 2002 as they discussed automobile mileage standards.AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

Senator never fails to call himself a conservative Republican as he campaigns as his party’s presumptive presidential nominee. He often adds that he was a “foot soldier” in the Reagan revolution and that he believes in the bedrock conservative principles of small government, low taxes and the rights of the unborn.

What Mr. McCain almost never mentions are two extraordinary moments in his political past that are at odds with the candidate of the present: His discussions in 2001 with Democrats about leaving the , and his conversations in 2004 with Senator about becoming Mr. Kerry’s running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket.

There are wildly divergent versions of both episodes, depending on whether Democrats or Mr. McCain and his advisers are telling the story. The Democrats, including Mr. Kerry, say that not only did Mr. McCain express interest but that it was his camp that initially reached out to them. Mr. McCain and his aides counter that in both cases the Democrats were the suitors and Mr. McCain the unwilling bride.

Either way, the episodes shed light on a bitter period in Mr. McCain’s life after the 2000 presidential election, when he was, at least in policy terms, drifting away from his own party. They also offer a glimpse into his psychological makeup and the difficulties in putting a label on his political ideology over many years in the Senate.

“There were times when he rose to the occasion and showed himself to be a real pragmatist,” said , the former Senate Democratic leader who was one of those who met with Mr. McCain in 2001 about switching parties and who is now supporting Senator . “There were other times when he was motivated by political goals and agendas that led him to be much more of a political ideologue.”

Such swings are common in politics, but for Mr. McCain, Mr. Daschle said, “those swings have been far more pronounced and far more frequent.”

Smear campaign
In the spring of 2001, Mr. McCain was by most accounts still angry about the smear campaign that had been run against him when he was campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination in the South Carolina primary the previous year. He had long blamed the Bush campaign for spreading rumors in the state that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock, which Bush aides denied. Mr. McCain was also upset that the new White House had shut the door on hiring so many of his aides.

“Very few, if any, of John’s people made it into the administration,” Mr. Daschle later wrote in his book “Like No Other Time.” “John didn’t think that was right, that his staff should be penalized like that.”

Mr. McCain had begun to ally himself with the Democrats on a number of issues, and had told Mr. Daschle that he planned to vote against the Bush tax cuts, a centerpiece of the new president’s domestic agenda. Mr. McCain often made “disparaging comments” about Mr. Bush on the floor of the Senate, Mr. Daschle recalled.

Still, Democrats were stunned one Saturday in late March when, by their account, John Weaver, Mr. McCain’s longtime political strategist, reached out to Thomas J. Downey, a former Democratic congressman from Long Island who had become a lobbyist with powerful connections on Capitol Hill. In Mr. Downey’s telling, Mr. Weaver posed a question to him over lunch that left him stunned.

“He says, ‘John McCain is wondering why nobody’s ever approached him about switching parties, or becoming an independent and allying himself with the Democrats,’ ” Mr. Downey said in a recent interview. “My reaction was, ‘When I leave this lunch, your boss will be called by anybody you want him to be called by in the .’ ”

Mr. Weaver recalls the conversation differently. He said that Mr. Downey had told him that Democrats, eager to find a Republican who would switch sides and give them control of the evenly divided Senate, had approached some Republican senators about making the jump. “I stated they couldn’t be so desperate as they hadn’t reached out to McCain,” Mr. Weaver said in an e-mail message last week.

Whatever transpired, Mr. Downey raced home and immediately called Mr. Daschle. It was the first step in what became weeks of conversations that April between Mr. McCain and the leading Democrats, among them Senator of Massachusetts and , then a senator from North Carolina, about the possibility of Mr. McCain’s leaving his party. One factor driving Mr. McCain, Mr. Downey said, was his bad relations with the Republican caucus.

“They had booed him once when he came in,” Mr. Downey said. “It was bad stuff in the caucus. He didn’t see his future with these guys.”

Mark Salter, one of Mr. McCain’s closest advisers, said that Mr. McCain, although flattered, never took the idea of leaving the party seriously. The topic was in any case overtaken in May when Senator of Vermont abandoned the Republicans and changed the balance of power. By June, when Mr. Daschle spent a long-planned weekend with Mr. McCain at Mr. McCain’s Arizona ranch, the question of changing parties was moot.

McCain or Kerry's idea?
But less than three years later, Mr. McCain was once again in talks with the Democrats, this time over whether he would be Mr. Kerry’s running mate. In an interview with a blog last year, Mr. Kerry said that the initial idea had come from Mr. McCain’s side, as had happened in 2001.

Mr. Kerry, reacting to reports in The Hill newspaper last year about Mr. Weaver’s 2001 approach to Mr. Downey, said he saw a pattern. “It doesn’t surprise me completely because his people similarly approached me to engage in a discussion about his potentially being on the ticket as vice president,” Mr. Kerry told Jonathan Singer of , a prominent liberal blog, in remarks that are available in an audio version online and that Mr. Kerry’s staff said last week were accurate. “So his people were active — let’s put it that way.”

Two former Kerry strategists said last week that Mr. Weaver went to Mr. Kerry’s house in Georgetown a short time after Mr. Kerry won the Democratic nomination in March and asked that Mr. Kerry consider Mr. McCain as his running mate. (Mr. Weaver said in his e-mail message that the idea had come from Mr. Kerry.) Whatever the case, both sides say that Mr. Kerry was so enthusiastic about the notion that he relentlessly pursued Mr. McCain, even to the point of offering him a large part of the president’s national security responsibilities.

Mr. McCain, who has rarely spoken publicly of his talks with Mr. Kerry, said last month that he had dismissed the vice-presidential offer out of hand. “He is, as he describes himself, a liberal Democrat,” Mr. McCain said of Mr. Kerry when he was asked about the episode by a participant at a public forum in Atlanta. “I am a conservative Republican. So when I was approached, when we had that conversation back in 2004, that’s why I never even considered such a thing.”

Mr. Kerry declined last week to discuss his conversations with Mr. McCain, but three former Kerry strategists said that Mr. McCain had not immediately dismissed the notion of sharing the Democratic ticket. “McCain did not flat-out say no, regardless of what he’s saying now,” said one strategist who asked not to be named. “He was interested in this discussion.”

But however Mr. McCain reacted, he ultimately decided, Mr. Salter said, that the idea would never work. At one point Mr. McCain told Mr. Kerry, Mr. Salter recalled, “What if something happens to you? Your party’s going to be pretty surprised about the kind of president they’re going to have.”

Still, that did not stop a number of Kerry strategists from thinking that Mr. McCain might have helped propel the Democrats to the White House in 2004. “It was a way to extend the reach of the candidacy,” said Mike Donilon, who was one of Mr. Kerry’s media advisers and had been a college roommate of Mr. Salter’s. “I thought it could have been a very strong ticket.”

This article, 2 Divergent McCain Moments, Rarely Mentioned, originally appeared in The New York Times.