WHAT IF JOHN MCCAIN HAD WON THE 2000 REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL NOMINATION?

In recent days the ardent left and the President have at last found some common ground: neither have anything nice to say about John McCain.

Phew! Finally, some reaching across the aisle!

The recently deceased Senator and two time Presidential Candidate was widely respected across the board. Conventional political wisdom holds him up as a moderate who worked well with both parties. Tributes from respected leaders, thinkers, and officers have poured out. As is tradition, both Barack Obama and George W. Bush— both of whom were at different points his political foes- will be at his funeral. Donald Trump will not.

Likewise, across social media and various analysis sites, the debate unfolds as to whether McCain was really the maverick-moderate people say. In short, whether it’s okay for true liberals to say nice things about him after his death. For many of my friends on the left, the answer seems to be “LOL FUCK THAT.”

I think that as with any career politician, it’d be tempting to boil down their legacy to their general rightward/leftward bent, how that fits with your moral framework, pick a few corroborating details (for instance, the shameful way McCain both catered to racists in his 2008 campaign and lowered the level of national discourse by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate) and call it good.
Personally, while I don’t think “standing up to Donald Trump” gets you a pass for an entire career, I do think that McCain was a fighter to the end, and took the fight where it was needed. He articulated clearly the unprecedented nature of the threat the Republic currently faces. While his own party doesn’t seem to be listening, he spoke his conscience at a time when it matters. In short, he went out on a high note.

Which got me to thinking; what if John McCain had won his party’s nomination for the Presidency in 2000?

How different would the United States, world, and Republican Party be?

This is clearly speculative. But here are, based on what we know, are a few predictions for future past:

1. He would have won the election.

He would have run against Al Gore. This was a good few years before Gore became the jokey, charismatic climate activist he’s often known as today. He was still at that point, known as much for being the husband of the woman who tried to ban rock music. The Democrats had no serious intention of running anyone else. John McCain would have won.

While some parts of the right-wing base have never been enthused on him, his anti-abortion stance would have kept enough of them in the fold. He also would have attracted enough independents, and possibly moderate Dems turned off by the scandals of the Clinton era. In short, he would have won handily both the electoral and popular vote; there wouldn’t have been re-counts, or a Supreme Court decision that further eroded faith in American Democracy.

2. There would have been just as many wars.

McCain was famously Hawkish. Most of his moderate-to-“left” tendencies are on the domestic front. After 9/11, he would have used the political capital and international goodwill afforded the U.S. to embark on “interventionist” policies across the globe. Many people would have died. Possibly more than already have, since there’s a good chance we would have gone into more countries.
That said, I believe said conflicts would have been presented to the American people more honestly. Possibly, for what it’s worth, executed more effectively. I believe this because. . .

3. He would not have been a puppet/would have surrounded himself with better people.

At this point in our speculative history, I’ll fully admit I’m out of my depth re: specifics. I don’t have any sort of comprehensive list  of who the various political operatives on the right who’d have been up for positions of influence in 2000. But while there’s potential for some overlap, I have a hard time seeing a McCain cabinet looking the same as a G W Bush cabinet. Which also means. . .

4. America would not have engaged in torture.

After getting tortured for years in Vietnam, you have to believe that McCain (who spoke out against the U.S. practices at Guantanamo) would not have allowed such things to occur, had he knowledge. This would also have kept us in better graces with our allies, disempowering the “America as rogue nation” narrative that’s taken for a positive in much of the Republican party.

5. He would have bolstered the moderate, flexible wing of the Republican party

Parties follow their leaders. You’re seeing it currently, as the right sheds what was left of it’s battered moderate wing. By 2000, the Republican party was already a venal, corrupt entity led by people like Newt Gingrich who see politics as a zero-sum game and will resort to anything to win. It already was beginning to cater to the bigotry of the religious right and was no stranger to using thinly veiled racism to win votes. I don’t think a successful McCain presidency would have quashed this element, but it would have emboldened those principled Republicans in the middle. McCain rejected figures like Jerry Falwell and eschewed the base that George W. Bush catered to.

On issues like climate change and immigration, he would have worked with Democrats to find largely frustrating and incomplete compromises. Nonetheless, these compromises could have set a precedent from which to work.

How the Democrats would have responded to a presidency like this is a level of speculation I can’t even engage in now; it’s a little like saying “what if Howard Dean hadn’t screamed that one time?”

None of this is a wish fulfillment fantasy.

I do not, I should clarify, think a McCain presidency would have been a net good for America. But I do think degrees matter in politics. If I had a time machine and could fix three political situations that occurred in my lifetime, this would not be one of the fixes.

But when thinking of history, people’s legacies, and the long, slow domino effect that politics can have on itself the world, sometimes a “what if” can provide context.

For my next speculative history trick: John Kerry?! REALLY?

Pete’s points:

I think this is all fair, but you didn’t mention McCain’s genuine commitment to internationalism/Atlanticism. It was as much a lodestar as his neocon vibes. I think he would have taken the UN Security Council vote/Western Europe’s opinions on Iraq seriously, for example. I think McCain’s support of the Iraq War was genuine—he stuck by it for a damn long time. But I think it was a product of being a good soldier for a Republican president. If McCain had been in charge, I doubt he would have made the insane speculative leaps that the Bush administration did.

I also think you got close but missed the mark on #3. I think he would have populated his cabinet with the same people, since they were the actual creme de la creme of the Republican policy establishment of the time and all credentialed Reagan-humpers. But he would not have been run over by Rummy or Cheney since he actually knew what the fuck was going on/had a sense of intellectual curiosity.

McCain had major moral failings, but I think he was fundamentally a decent person. At least, he tried to carry himself that way. This more or less sums it up for me:

John McCain was funny and acerbic and had soul and pathos and blind spots and cruelty and conviction. He was bellicose. He was bled and broken and brave for his country. He was dangerous and his decency as a man is belied by the death toll of the foreign policy he espoused. He sold out to corporations but he believed in campaign finance reform. He saved Obamacare but would have repealed it. He was enamored of independence and then surprised you by living up to it, rarely. He was complicated. He believed in America. He was big in a place filled with tiny tiny little fuckers. He was a patriot and he was wrong. He was a patriot and if there is a core challenge we face right now, if you could say in one sentence what may doom this country, it is that cowardice, greed, hate, and power have drained the patriotism of one of our two political parties.

It’s true, the world would be far worse if John McCain had his way. But it would be far better if more politicians had a shred of his character. And that ought to be mourned. That ought to be grieved.


Also published on Medium.