In 2002, as Democrats were struggling for a way forward during what, in hindsight, was Peak George W. Bush, I became consumed with the question of how the party could ever hope to defeat an extraordinarily popular wartime president. Bush had run in 2000 as a bipartisan-minded "compassionate conservative" without evincing much ambition for what he hoped to achieve in the White House. Thanks to a friendly Supreme Court, he landed there anyway, despite losing the popular vote to A1 Gore.
Bush's presidency was flagging until the September 11th terrorist attacks remade U.S. politics. In their wake, Bush remade himself into the person we remember today: the hyper-aggressive foreign policy hawk who, egged on by Dick Cheney and his own misplaced sense of destiny, would soon launch ill-fated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In early 2002, Bush seemed utterly impregnable. When I sat down to write "The Big Switch" for the Washington Monthly, his Gallup approval rating was 80 percent. At the same time, the Democrats lining up to challenge him in 2004--including John Kerry, Tom Daschle, and John Edwards--looked to me and the other Monthly editors like a band of hapless milquetoasts, a sentiment Paul Glastris had captured with an iconic March 2002 cover story, "Why Can't the Democrats Get Tough?" As I wrote a few months later, "What's plaguing so many in the Democratic Party is that looking to the future, there doesn't appear to be a savior. Presidential aspirants are already lining up for 2004, but so far, no one's very excited."
So I took it upon myself to anoint a Democratic savior: Republican Senator John McCain.
The idea that Democrats might nominate a Republican wasn't nearly as crazy as it sounds today. Back then, all sorts of fascinating prehistoric creatures roamed the American political landscape: pro-life Democrats; liberal hawks; Republicans who weren't blinkered cultists; and actual living, breathing centrists who existed in great enough number to fill entire restaurants or even arenas. The parameters of U.S. politics were much narrower then--most Republicans believed in climate change, most Democrats were hawks. Issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal weren't even a blip on the horizon. Gay marriage was considered too risque for any serious presidential aspirant to support. There was still such a thing as a "political middle," and you had to carry it to win the White House.
McCain was fresh off his insurgent run against Bush in the...