The Fantasy-World McCain Presidency

Ramesh asks

I wonder what would have happened if McCain had won the nomination in 2000. I think he would probably have won the general election. He wouldn’t have cut taxes as much as Bush, but he would have prosecuted the Iraq war better and left the Republican party in better shape. Would he have nominated judges of the caliber of John Roberts and Samuel Alito? I’m not sure.

Perhaps it’s obvious that I’m a McCain admirer. I think the world would be a far better place had McCain defeated Bush in 2000. I also think, contra Matt, that McCain is not a reflexive hawk. My sense is that he would have sought regime change in Iraq, but that he’d be far more responsive to arguments for restraint stemming from questions of preparedness and the extent of the coalition. Our failure to adequately reassure the Turks, for example, had obviously negative consequences for our ability to control Iraq. As someone deeply informed on military and, yes, diplomatic matters, McCain wouldn’t have behaved so cavalierly. Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, as McCain certainly has a longstanding reputation as a short-fused loon.

Because of McCain’s reform orientation, perhaps his tax cuts would have taken the form of coalition-expanding tax reform. Kevin Hassett is hardly a Bolshevik, and he was McCain’s chief economic advisor. As for the judicial nominees question, I always imagine that McCain would have nominated someone like Luttig. (Silberman is too old.) But who knows? I can also imagine him nominating a Maureen Mahoney, the better to preserve bipartisan comity. And imagine the stars that would have emerged during a McCain presidency, the talented younger Republicans who would have come to the fore and the Democratic defectors. Some McCain Democrats would surely have become McCain Republicans. Candidate recruitment at all levels might have been stronger, thanks to the broader partisan realignment, the McCain majority, that Brooks and Kristol imagined in 2000. Granted, it is just as easy to imagine a Republican base that would remain fiercely antagonistic towards McCain’s efforts, which may have led to intraparty strife — or the marginalization of the most recalcitrant elements of the base. (Hurray!)

In Comeback, David Frum offers another scenario: Gore defeats Bush in 2000 (or rather, Gore defeats Bush indisputably) and Giuliani defeats Gore in 2004. This suggests a fascinating alternate history, in which a very different post-Reaganite Republican party emerges. Untainted by Bush’s incompetence, a Giuliani-led party in 2004 could’ve been pan-ethnic, pro-market, forward-looking. Or it could have been something far less pleasant.