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.