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President McCain at Midterm

What if . . .

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By TOD LINDBERG
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No, this is not going to be a full-blown exercise in the fiction genre of Alternative History: A minor adviser to the 2008 McCain presidential campaign chronicles the day-to-day ups and downs of the two eventful years following the American people’s reluctant conclusion that they don’t know a blessed thing about Barack Obama and want something a little more reliable than “hope and change.” We’ll leave that to Harry “Guns of the South” Turtledove—the master of the genre. While we will be engaging here in flagrant speculation, and though the claims we will make are accordingly beyond truth or falsehood, this is not fiction but rather an attempt to take what we know about American politics and ask what would have happened if, mirabile dictu, the 2008 election had gone the other way and John McCain were president of the United States today.

President McCain at Midterm

Gary Locke

From the persistence and intensity of the Obama critique of the administration of George W. Bush, which began more than three years ago and continues unabated to this day, we can conclude that its devotees believe if Democrats had been in charge instead of W., everything, simply everything, would have been different and better. If you never open Guantánamo, you don’t have to learn you can’t close it. If you stay out of Iraq, Saddam Hussein is no problem, Afghanistan is handled, and Osama bin Laden is dead. Because you would have been regulating financial markets properly, their collapse wouldn’t have imperiled the world economy. Because tax rates for the rich would never have been lowered, you wouldn’t now have to call for raising them. (Okay, never mind that one.) In this cheerfully Manichean exercise, pure evil on the other side yields to pure good on yours, and everything works out for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

If one were proceeding in the same vein as Democrats have with Bush, one would claim that the BP Deepwater Horizon spill would never have happened during a McCain administration. Why not? It’s simple. The McCain-Palin campaign commitment to “all of the above” on energy would have elevated the subject to the top of the domestic agenda, rather than the sub-basement to which the Obama administration consigned it along with other icky things. During a McCain administration, all parties, governmental and corporate, would accordingly be giving far more attention to their energy exploration efforts. BP would never have taken the shortcuts it did, and Deepwater Horizon would be pumping without incident.

But one shouldn’t succumb to partisan histrionics. The spill would very likely have happened on McCain’s watch (just as a Kerry administration would likely have faced a financial crisis). And Deepwater Horizon would have been an even bigger problem for a McCain administration than it was for Obama’s, precisely because of the greater importance of energy to his policy agenda (remember GOP conventioneers chanting “Drill, Baby, Drill!”). Perhaps McCain would have responded more forcefully. It is his natural tendency to swing into action, where Obama’s tendency is to be contemplative. But BP would have put a McCain presidency at risk.

So we need to keep a firm grip on the reality that when things turn out well, it is not solely because the good guys do things well, and when things turn out badly, it may not be because bad guys are in charge. Events loom large. Yet I do think a McCain administration would have been very different so far from the Obama administration—different in terms of policy choices and outcomes as well as political repercussions.

The first question that needs addressing is whether the U.S. economy would be performing any better had McCain been elected president. I think the answer is yes, but the reason is complicated. President McCain would surely have been willing to stimulate the economy in early 2009. It’s true that as a senator, McCain voted against the legislation, but an important part of this exercise is to distinguish between what McCain has actually said and done as a senator and what he might have done as president. 

Like most Republicans, Senator McCain didn’t like the stimulus bill because of its vast payoffs to traditional Democratic constituencies, its shortage of tax relief in comparison to spending, and the extent to which the spending was misdirected and delayed. Yet those objectionable features were not inevitable but the product of a Democratic Congress interacting with a Democratic president. 

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