Daschle Claims McCain Nearly Defected to Dems in 2001

Dale Franks has a link to a story in Thursday’s edition of The Hill that may torpedo John McCain’s presidential campaign: according to former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and a member of the Democratic House leadership at the time, McCain’s top political strategist approached the Democrats about a potential defection in early 2001, which led to at least two months of negotiations:

Democrats had contacted Jeffords and then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) 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.”

Needless to say, Weaver is denying the alleged negotiations took place–or at least have been greatly exaggerated:

[Weaver] 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. …

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.”

As Dale notes, not only does this story reinforce the stereotype of McCain as a fence-sitting maverick, if Daschle’s claims are even close to the whole truth it is also far more treacherous behavior by a party loyalist than Mitt Romney’s history of flip-flopping on social issues (a history he shares with Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and a gaggle of other GOPers at all levels), or even McCain’s history of being a lone Republican who can be counted on to put a veneer of “bipartisanship” on legislation pushed primarily by liberal Democrats.

UPDATE (James Joyner): I contacted McCain’s blogger relations lead early this morning and was told at 7:04 that “we’re preparing a response.” A subsequent exchange at 7:26 said they “hope to have [it] at around 8:00 am.” At 9:13, though, they reversed course: “We’re not going to comment.”

UPDATE (James Joyner): TNR’s Michael Crowley claims “I myself heard about it contemporaneously from a very plugged-in Democratic operative.” He adds, “I believe it. It’s a reminder of how much McCain’s profile has changed in the past several years.”

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.


  1. McGehee says:

    Much as I dislike McCain, I distrust Daschle more.