Sunday, November 30, 2008

John McCain: Bad Timing

When John McCain gave his acceptance speech three months ago for the G.O.P. Presidential nomination I remember thinking to myself, “if only this were the year 2000….If only this were the year 2000.”

The tragedy of John McCain’s 2008 campaign was that he was the right man in the right place at the wrong time. McCain had to carry the burden of eight years of political, fiscal, and legal amorality of the Bush Administration. It was burden that no G.O.P. nominee could have successfully carried: not McCain; not Mike Huckabee; not Mitt Romney or any other Republican candidate.

The zenith of McCain’s campaign was his acceptance speech at the G.O.P. convention. It was a marvelous speech and had McCain won the election it would have been seen as a landmark convention speech—remembered and celebrated by historians for decades to come. Had McCain given that convention speech in the year 2000—had McCain been able to win the G.O.P. nomination in the year 2000 then the past eight years would have been very different indeed.

A McCain Presidential campaign in 2000 would have been fascinating. First of all who would have been Veep in 2000? It wouldn’t have been Sarah Palin of course but who would it have been? George W. Bush as a sop to the Right Wing and would Bush have accepted the Veep nomination like his father did when Reagan won in 1980?

A McCain 2000 campaign would have been blessed instead of being cursed like it was in 2008. The economy in 2000 was in very good shape (although it was imperceptibly starting to slow down). There was no 9/11 with its attendant climate of fear and paranoia. McCain would have had the moral high ground since the Democrats were still reeling from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Also McCain’s fiery personality would have provided a compelling counterpoint to his opponent, Al Gore’s wooden persona.

If McCain had been able to avoid any pratfalls in the fall of 2000 then he would have had an excellent chance in winning on Election Day 2000. Instead of the politically charged re-count and the even more controversial Supreme Court decision awarding the Presidency to George W. Bush, McCain would have won a clear-cut decision with no room for protest. Instead of Bush Administration tainted with illegitimacy. McCain would have been riding high on a wave of change.

A McCain Presidency would have differed from that George W. Bush. People forget that McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts of 2001 because they were not backed by commensurate cuts in government spending. Those tax cuts coupled with massive deregulation and combined with the massive spending programs of the Bush Administration and the massive war effort pushed the American economy to the breaking point. (McCain’s biggest mistake in the 2008 campaign was in not reminding voters that he opposed the Bush tax cuts in 2001. If he had done so it would have gone a long way in refuting Obama’s strategy of linking McCain to Bush).

A McCain Presidency would have adopted a more moderate and flexible attitude towards global-warming and other environmental issues. (McCain drew more votes from Republicans who were strong on environmental and conservation issues than Bush did).

And there is 9/11….

McCain, unlike Bush, would never have allowed the bi-partisan spirit of those dark months following that terrifying day to dissipate. McCain’s ability to reach across the aisle would have reached full flower. McCain (unlike Bush) who had been blooded in combat would have done more to marshal and maintain the martial spirit to wage the war on terror. McCain (unlike Bush) would have been able to maintain our moral authority in the struggle. Most important of all: there would have been no war in Iraq. Without the costly drain on personnel and material brought on by the Iraqi war, our efforts in Afghanistan would not have been vitiated like they are now. The war on terror would have been waged more judiciously and effectively.

Indeed, McCain would have been poised to win re-election in 2004 by an even more substantial margin than in 2000. (People forget Bush narrowly won re-election in the Electoral College in 2004).

Simply put John McCain had he won in 2000 would have done what George W. Bush failed to do—assume the mantle of Ronald Reagan as the leader of American conservatism—but I anticipate myself. That’s material for another blog entry for the future!)

If these things had happened then John McCain would be leaving the Presidency now with a country that would have been in much better shape than it was. I don’t believe the present crises of today would have been as horrendous or even happening at all if McCain had won in 2000.

But, sadly, that didn’t happen. McCain didn’t win the G.O.P. nomination in 2000 and eight years later he went down in defeat against Barack Obama.

The one question I have about his 2008 campaign is this: was his expressed desire to achieve victory in Iraq genuine or was his militant rhetoric political camouflage designed to appease conservatives while allowing him the chance to find an alternative solution to the Iraqi war? In other words would McCain have done what Charles De Gaulle did in 1958 during the war between Algeria and France? Between 1954 to 1962, Algerian rebels seeking independence from France revolted against the French government. The war in Algeria literally brought France to the brink of revolution. Charles De Gaulle was summoned out of political exile to form a government which would resolve the Algerian crisis while at the same time enact constitutional reform in France proper. De Gaulle traveled to Algeria and, in public, proclaimed a French Algeria but in private knew that there was no way to keep in Algeria as a part of France; instead, demanding that the French army achieve a tactical victory which would allow De Gaulle to negotiate with the Algerian rebels for mutually amicable terms where Algeria would achieve independence.

Was John McCain thinking in the same terms? Providing enough arms and material to U.S. forces in Iraq that would help them achieve a face-saving, tactical success which in turn would provide the political justification to pull back re-deploy U.S. forces in Afghanistan and help American regain its strategic equilibrium undermined by the Iraqi war.

That question remains unanswered.

John McCain need not apologize for his campaign. Like Bob Dole did for the World War Two generation, John McCain now becomes the respected elder statesman for the Vietnam War generation.

Still…the tragedy remains: when America chose Bush over McCain in 2000 it lost more than it gained.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama: A New Approach

The election of Barack Obama as President represents a benchmark in American political history not solely due to the color of Obama’s skin but also due to the dominant issues that undermined and ultimately crushed his opponent John McCain’s candidacy.

Obama’s victory is significant in that he won more convincingly than Jimmy Carter did in 1976 or Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Obama broke new ground for the Democratic Party in recapturing states which had once been G.O.P. conservative strongholds: Virginia and North Carolina. Obama’s electoral victory has to be the strongest repudiation of an outgoing two term President’s legacy in American history since Warren G. Harding’s victory in 1920.

But when contemplating Obama’s victory one must remember that Obama’s campaign is not over (it never is in American Presidential politics). Even though Obama has sizable majorities in both Houses of Congress it must also be remembered that the last Democratic President to enjoy lockstep support from Congress was Lyndon Johnson. Carter never had support from Congress at all during his Presidency and Clinton’s support was extremely shaky during his first two years in office before losing both Houses to the G.O.P. in 1994. In fact Obama’s biggest enemy in Congress will not be a Republican but former Democratic (and now Independent) Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut. If anyone will be Obama’s chief gadfly it will be Lieberman unless Sarah Palin can convince Alaska Senator Ted Stevens to resign and be elected to fill his vacant seat—which is her intention despite her protestations to the contrary.

Even more likely, the Republicans in Congress will resort to the tactics they used during Bill Clinton’s Presidency: constant filibustering and the use of legislative tricks to stall key legislation; Cabinet, executive, and judicial appointments made by Obama for the next four years. Considering Obama’s mandate it is highly likely that the G.O.P. will adopt this strategy while they lick their wounds and start anew.

Another thing: those expecting another New Deal or Great Society from Obama will be disappointed. The days of massive liberal domestic programs have become passé. In reality the advent of supply-side economics as G.O.P. fiscal orthodoxy coupled with America’s transition from creditor to debtor nation along with the obscene rise in the National Debt (both of which did not exist in 1933 or 1965) along with the growing power of conservative lobbyists and media outlets makes any potential massive liberal domestic programming politically risky if not irresponsible. Bill Clinton’s failure to achieve health-care reform in 1994 is a prime example of this. Whatever spending Obama will do must be done with the revenues already present.

Will Obama’s Presidency be the dawn of a new Augustan Age (as the late poet Robert Frost heralded John F. Kennedy’s Presidency in 1961)? Only time will tell.

Actually it is the words of the late Civil War Historian Bruce Catton who best captures what America is feeling and experiencing right now in the wake of Obama’s victory. Catton wrote these words in his book Never Call Retreat, the final volume in his trilogy commemorating the centennial of the Civil War; with the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth due next year and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War due in 2011, Catton’s words are supremely appropriate.

Something had been won; but it was nothing more, and at the same time nothing less than a chance to make a new approach toward a goal that had to be reached if the war and the nation that had endured it had final meaning. The ship was moving through Lincoln’s dream, toward a dark indefinite shore, it had a long way to go, and the sky contained no stars the ordinary mortal could see. All that was certain was that the voyage was under way.