Democrats Say McCain Nearly Abandoned GOP
Democrats Say McCain Nearly Abandoned GOP
by Bob Cusack
As published at TheHill.com
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was close to leaving the Republican Party in 2001, weeks before then-Sen. Jim Jeffords (VT) famously announced his decision to become an Independent, according to former Democratic lawmakers who say they were involved in the discussions.
In interviews with The Hill this month, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) and ex-Rep. Tom Downey (D-NY) said there were nearly two months of talks with the maverick lawmaker following an approach by John Weaver, McCain’s chief political strategist.
Democrats had contacted Jeffords and then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) in the early months of 2001 about switching parties, but in McCain’s case, they said, it was McCain’s top strategist who came to them.
At the end of their March 31, 2001 lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Bethesda, MD, Downey said Weaver asked why Democrats hadn’t asked McCain to switch parties.
Downey, a well-connected lobbyist, said he was stunned.
“You’re really wondering?” Downey said he told Weaver. “What do you mean you’re wondering?”
“Well, if the right people asked him,” Weaver said, according to Downey, adding that he responded, “The calls will be made. Who do you want?” Weaver this week said he did have lunch with Downey that spring, pointing out that he and Downey “are very good friends.”
He claims, however, that Downey is grossly mischaracterizing their exchange: “We certainly didn’t discuss in any detail about the senator’s political plans and any discussion about party-switchers, generically, would have been limited to the idle gossip which was all around the city about the [Democrats’] aggressive approach about getting any GOP senator to switch in order to gain the majority. Nothing more or less than that.”
Downey said Weaver is well aware that their discussion was much more than typical Washington chit-chat.
“Within seconds” of arriving home from his lunch with Weaver, Downey said he was on the phone to the most powerful Democrats in town. One of the first calls he made was to then-Senate Minority Leader Daschle.
“I did take the call from Tom [Downey],” Daschle said in an interview. “It was Weaver’s comment” to Downey that started the McCain talks, he added.
Daschle noted that McCain at that time was frustrated with the Bush administration as a result of his loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican primary.
Daschle said that throughout April and May of 2001, he and McCain “had meetings and conversations on the floor and in his office, I think in mine as well, about how we would do it, what the conditions would be. We talked about committees and his seniority … [A lot of issues] were on the table.”
Absolutely not so, according to McCain. In a statement released by his campaign, McCain said, “As I said in 2001, I never considered leaving the Republican Party, period.”
Some of the meetings Daschle referred to are detailed in the former senator’s 2003 book.
Other senators who played major roles in the intense recruiting effort, according to Democrats, were then-Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) as well as Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Harry Reid (D-NV).
“John [Edwards] at that time was working with McCain on a couple things and there was a sense that because of his relationship that he might be a good person to talk to him,” Daschle said. “He was clearly one of those that we thought could be helpful.”
A source close to Edwards said Daschle’s comments are accurate.
Daschle also said, “Both Sen. Reid and I talked to [McCain] both individually and together.”
Several former McCain aides who worked for the senator in 2001 and are now in the private sector did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a longtime friend of McCain’s, said yesterday, “I have never heard one word from John’s mouth to suggest he was going to leave the Republican Party. These are political-intrigue stories that have no basis in fact.”
Speculation about McCain’s flirtations with becoming an Independent surfaced in the press throughout 2001.
In one article, Marshall Wittman, a McCain loyalist and strategist six years ago, put the odds of McCain leaving the Republican Party at “50-50.” Wittman, who now works for Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), declined to comment for this article. A source said that Wittman’s comment at that time was “completely based on speculation.”
McCain consistently shot down the rumors, though Weaver acknowledged this week that the senator did talk to Democrats about leaving the GOP.
He said McCain was invited to a meeting in Kennedy’s office with several other Democratic senators but “didn’t know what the meeting was for” and left soon thereafter. Weaver added that Edwards approached McCain on the Senate floor to discuss the matter.
Daschle, however, said the talks went much further, claiming that there were times that he and Democratic leaders thought McCain “might be our best opportunity.” Daschle stressed that McCain never considered becoming a Democrat, but was close to becoming an Independent. Downey said, “I actually thought during the initial stages of this that [McCain leaving the Republican Party] was almost a certain deal.”
Weaver, who changed his party affiliation to “Democrat” several years ago, said he respects Daschle and Downey, but added, “They’re partisan Democrats and we’re in the political season.”
Told of Weaver’s version of what happened, Daschle said, “Obviously, our recollection of what transpired is somewhat different.”
Daschle first made some of these assertions in little-noticed parts of his book, titled Like No Other Time: The 107th Congress and the Two Years That Changed America Forever.
The book states that in 2001, Daschle and other Democrats were attempting to persuade three Republicans to leave their party: Jeffords, Chafee, and McCain.
Asked which one was the closest to committing, Daschle answered, “Depended on the day.”
On page 62, Daschle wrote that McCain and Chafee “seemed like real possibilities” to bolt their party. He pointed out that few, if any, of McCain’s people were hired by the Bush administration.
“John didn’t think that was right,” Daschle wrote, “that his staff should be penalized like that.”
Chafee confirmed to The Hill this week that he had meetings with Democrats about changing parties in 2001 because he was “alarmed” at the differences between President Bush’s campaign promises and the policies coming out of his administration.
Weaver said he hasn’t read Daschle’s book, which does not mention the Downey-Weaver lunch.
Mark Salter, who in 2001 was McCain’s chief of staff and now works for the senator’s campaign, said McCain has not at any moment thought about leaving the Republican Party: “Never at any time. Never.”
Salter said there were no staff discussions about this issue, noting he would have been in on them.
Soon after Bush was inaugurated as the nation’s 43rd president, McCain was working with Democrats on many issues, ranging from gun control to healthcare to campaign-finance reform.
McCain’s links to Democrats were so clear that Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) — now a close ally of McCain — publicly criticized him in the early part of 2001 for keeping “unusual company.”
Jeffords pulled the trigger on May 24, 2001, throwing control of the Senate to Democrats. Chafee and McCain then broke off their discussions with Democratic leaders, according to Democrats.
Downey said he talked to Weaver at least once a week during McCain’s discussions with Democrats, asking him questions like, “What is the state of play?” and “Where are we?”
“Weaver was very active in this,” Downey said, “None of this happens without Weaver.”
The Democrats’ claims about McCain come as the senator is courting the Republican base for his 2008 White House bid. Other frontrunners for the GOP nomination have raised some eyebrows in conservative circles. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) voted for Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas (MA) in 1992, while ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) endorsed then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) a couple years later.
Asked why this news hasn’t come out before, Downey said, “It’s a mystery to me. And in fact, the last time Weaver and I had dinner together [on April 26, 2006], we laughed about this… It’s never been written about, never got in the paper.”
He denied any political motivation, saying he is still friends with Weaver and “deeply respects” McCain. “I would have been happy to come forward last year or the year before if someone had asked… There were meetings in offices. You can’t deny [these meetings took place]. They occurred.”
Downey added, “It’s my hope that John McCain is the Republican nominee because from my perspective, although I think Democrats are going to win, if they don’t, McCain is the sort of man I would feel comfortable [with] as the president of the United States. I’m not trying to hurt him.”
Daschle said he doesn’t believe the new revelations will hurt McCain. “Everyone has known John McCain to be independent, to take his own course. That was a time in his life when he at least weighed the possibility of becoming an independent, but he rejected it, so I can’t imagine that can ever be used as a political liability.”
On June 2, 2001, The Washington Post ran a front-page story with the headline “McCain is Considering Leaving GOP; Arizona Senator Might Launch a Third-Party Challenge to Bush in 2004.”
The article, written in the wake of the Jeffords’s announcement, noted that Daschle and his wife were visiting the McCains at the senator’s home in Arizona for what was billed by McCain’s office as a social event. But by that time, McCain had decided to stay a Republican, according to Daschle.
In his book, Daschle wrote that plans for the June weekend getaway were made months earlier when McCain was mulling changing his party affiliation.
As the media camped outside the senator’s vacation house in Sedona, AZ, Daschle and McCain discussed “what an incredible piece of history Jim Jeffords had just written,” Daschle wrote. “Nothing was said about John doing the same thing. I think we both knew that wasn’t going to happen, not now.”
McCain and Bush settled their differences before the president’s reelection campaign in 2004, when McCain strongly backed his former nemesis after reportedly rejecting an offer from Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) to become his vice presidential nominee. Last year, McCain aggressively stumped for dozens of GOP candidates.