Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 2, 2008

WHAT IF 2000 HAD GONE DIFFERENTLY?....Usually, when politicos engage in thought experiments about the 2000 race turning out differently, it's to speculate on the successes of a Gore administration. But Ramesh Ponnuru pondered a different question:

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.

Andy McCarthy agrees that McCain may have been more effective in prosecuting a war in Iraq, but adds, "[W]ould he have invaded Iraq in the first place? I'd bet no. I realize he was very supportive of the Bush policy, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the policy he'd have made if he'd been president."

I had the same reaction to all of this as Yglesias: "My impression of McCain is that though he was a believer in restraint back in the 1980s, that by 2000 he was the neocon in the race. There was a reason, after all, why Bill Kristol and so forth were supporting him and it wasn't Kristol's commitment to campaign finance reform."

Exactly. Back in 2000, the neocons weren't exactly enthusiastic Bush backers. They didn't love his father; they weren't enamored with the then-governor's foreign policy team (Condi Rice?); and to hear him on the stump, he was for "humility" and against "nation building." McCain was the neocon; Bush was the neophyte.

As for post-election, McCain wasn't a cheerleader for the war in 2002 and 2003 out of party loyalty; he actually believed his rhetoric. (It included now-foolish pre-invasion predictions such as, "I believe that the success will be fairly easy"; "We're not going to have a bloodletting of trading American bodies for Iraqi bodies"; and "We will win this conflict. We will win it easily.")

I suppose whether a McCain administration would have been less inept in executing a war policy depends in part on your position on the "incompetence dodge," but given what we know, it seems unlikely a President McCain would have showed restraint towards Iraq.

Steve Benen 7:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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I hope whom ever is the Dem nominee is that they show ads of McCain's quotes that you mention over and over again. McCain is just as unsuited for the presidency as the rest of the circus act that is the Republican presidential field.

Posted by: Joe Klein's conscience on January 2, 2008 at 7:50 PM | PERMALINK

Had the Republicans nominated McCain, he would have won 40 states, so he wouldn't have been so desperate to leverage 9/11 for political gain. It's also possible that, as the inspectors were discovering that Iraq was completely devoid of WMDs, McCain might have had the wisdom to postpone the invasion, or at least revisit the war plans.

Posted by: kth on January 2, 2008 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

Would McCain have read and understood "Bin Laden determined to Attack inside US"? Probably, much as Al Gore would have. 9/11 would not have happened as neither Gore nor even McCain are as completely incompetent as George W. Bush, so what would the justification for war with Iraq have been?

Posted by: kidkostar on January 2, 2008 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, I've read back on all of the posts you've written that focus on a single candidate, and all but one are about Republicans on this page. (The last post is about Obama.)

Given that this is a blog on a mostly Democratic-leaning Web site, and there's a Democratic nomination fight going on, this seems kinda odd....

What happened to that blogosphere so eager to flex its muscle on the nomination process?

Posted by: AMP on January 2, 2008 at 7:58 PM | PERMALINK

But what if Dewey had beaten Truman?

Posted by: AJ on January 2, 2008 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with kidkostar. Why are you assuming that if John McCain had won in 2000 we'd have invaded Iraq anyway?

As much as I disagree with him vociferously about our current post-intervention policy in Iraq, Sen. McCain doesn't seem the sort of person who would first manufacture evidence and then so baldly deceive the American people about a rationale for war in that country.

No doubt McCain would have maintained and probably increased the sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime, but there's nothing in the man's background and character to suggest that he'd so giddily resort to war as did the present White House occupant. Rather, I'd offer that because of his bitter Vietnam-era experiences, the reverse is probably far more likely.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 2, 2008 at 8:07 PM | PERMALINK

Too many IFs trying to figure out IF McCain would have prosecuted a war IF he chose to fight it in the first place IF he was so incomepetent at reading intelligence to prevent a 9/11 IF he won the presidency IF he won the republican nomination.

Who cares about that chain of IFs. It is not like we are in the middle of August of 2009 with nothing interesting going on.

Posted by: rational on January 2, 2008 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK

Speculating as to what any particular politician would have done if elected is a complete waste of band width.

Posted by: Chris Brown on January 2, 2008 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK

AMP on January 2, 2008 at 7:58 PM:

What happened to that blogosphere so eager to flex its muscle on the nomination process?

Jesus...what aspect of the Iowa caucuses hasn't been beaten to a bloody pulp? If anything, I'm grateful to read something besides the endless analysis of minutae that seems to pass for political coverage.

Muscle has been flexed; it's just the night before Caucus-mas, and all through the house...Me, I'm just waiting for it all to happen.

rational on January 2, 2008 at 8:10 PM:

Who cares about that chain of IFs.

Oh, I gotta second that. Funny how conservatives 'thinkers' tend to wander off into la-la land rather than deal with the outcomes of being wrong, wrong, wrong...

Posted by: grape_crush on January 2, 2008 at 8:27 PM | PERMALINK

What if it hadn't been only aristocrats who wrote the Constitution?

Posted by: Chris Brown on January 2, 2008 at 8:28 PM | PERMALINK

Just imagine the headlines in 2003...

Secretary of the Treasury Charles Keating Arrested on Pornography Charges

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on January 2, 2008 at 8:38 PM | PERMALINK

Or how about, "Vice President Fred Thompson announces plans to resign from office, star in next Jerry Bruckheimer movie."

Posted by: AMP on January 2, 2008 at 8:39 PM | PERMALINK

There is one huge assumption being made here and that is that 9/11 would have happened under a McCain administration. As rational implies above I think a credible argument could be made that McCain's admin probably prevents 9/11 from even happening.

I don't like republicans even one bit and I don't even like McCain but say what you want he simply wouldn't have been as incompetent as bush has been.

Posted by: BobbyK on January 2, 2008 at 8:55 PM | PERMALINK

I think it is unlikely that McCain would have selected Chaney as his running mate. Perhaps Bush would have been Veep, then all that special Iraq planning would never happen.

Posted by: Steve on January 2, 2008 at 9:05 PM | PERMALINK

William Kristol was the man behind McCain. We likely would have moved to attack Iraq before 9/11. People are acting like there wasn't a whole decade spent trying to convince the US to "finish the job".

Posted by: Rob on January 2, 2008 at 9:13 PM | PERMALINK

I pretty much agree with kth, kidkostar, and Donald.

I just don't see that McCain would have gone to war with Iraq, as things in fact played out. In particular, I just don't see McCain as seeing that the inspectors could find absolutely no evidence of WMDs and then blithely going to war with Iraq nonetheless.

People nowadays act as if it was 100% obvious that Bush was going to war with Iraq, no matter what the inspectors might have found or how Saddam might have complied. I just don't see how that was obvious, except in hindsight. (I realize that many claimed it was obvious, but those are in almost all cases fanatical people who simply believe that Bush would do absolutely anything, so long as it was evil).

I remember at the time being rather shocked that Bush bulled ahead with the war despite the contrary evidence from the inspectors. I couldn't envision at the time any previous President being so reckless of the process, or of world opinion, including Reagan or Bush senior. It was at that precise moment that I fully realized how irrational the man was, and how contemptuous he was of any precedent or deliberative process. In the modern age, he is simply unique.

Posted by: frankly0 on January 2, 2008 at 9:18 PM | PERMALINK

I think President McCain would have succumbed to PSTD after two weeks in office, completely flipped out, nuked Botswana, declared war on Burkina Faso and outlawed chewing gum. After murdering and baking his wife in the Executive mansion, he would have died in a ferocious gun battle after taking his gay lover, Trent Lott, hostage in the Congressional rest room stall next to Larry Craig.

C'est la vie....

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on January 2, 2008 at 9:35 PM | PERMALINK

You lost me. Why the comparisons between Bush's neocon creds and McCain's? I think a more appropriate comparison would have been between Cheney and McCain. I doubt McCain was as tumescent about invading Iraq as Cheney. Would 9/11 have even happened without the Bush/Cheney crowd's criminal incompetence? I'm sure McCain's capacity for lying has always been great, but I doubt he was brazen enough to lie as much as he'd like. It's only been in the post Bush world that we have seen just how much lying and criminality the Congress and the press are willing to countenance from the reight wing.
For what it's worth, I think McCain would have tried some Iran-Contra type escapades, and maybe even a Gulf War I type confrontation against Iraq or Iran, if the circumstances had permitted it. But I doubt he would have gone for a full scale, illegal war of aggression, invasion and occupation of Iraq (especially with an unfinished Afghan invasion on his plate).

Posted by: jussumbody on January 2, 2008 at 9:39 PM | PERMALINK


Linking to that assface Ponnuru as he wanks himself into a frenzy over that rat eater John McCain?


Posted by: Your Mom Smells on January 2, 2008 at 9:41 PM | PERMALINK

ho cares about that chain of IFs.

Ramesh Ponnuru

The question is why does anyone care about Ramesh Ponnuru or what he thinks about anything?

The guy is a sick freaking Repuke water carrier of the lowest order.

Posted by: Your Mom Smells on January 2, 2008 at 9:43 PM | PERMALINK

Ramesh Ponnuru asked, “Would he [McCain] have nominated judges of the caliber of John Roberts and Samuel Alito?” This raises the question, “What are the calibers of John Roberts and Samuel Alito?” For the answer to that question, I would ask Sen. Larry Craig.

Posted by: Joel Rubinstein on January 2, 2008 at 9:44 PM | PERMALINK

"People nowadays act as if it was 100% obvious that Bush was going to war with Iraq, no matter what the inspectors might have found or how Saddam might have complied. I just don't see how that was obvious, except in hindsight. . I just don't see how that was obvious, except in hindsight. (I realize that many claimed it was obvious, but those are in almost all cases fanatical people who simply believe that Bush would do absolutely anything, so long as it was evil)." - frankly0

Well, I guess I'm one of 'the fanatical people' who knew Bush would invade Iraq at least from the middle of 2002. The rhetoric, the lies, the propaganda. Why would an administration go to such lengths to justify an invasion of Iraq to the American people unless their intention was to do that exactly? Another resource was the alternative media. After the 2003 SOTU, all possible doubt about an invasion was gone. It was just a question of when.

Posted by: nepeta on January 2, 2008 at 9:46 PM | PERMALINK

. (I realize that many claimed it was obvious, but those are in almost all cases fanatical people who simply believe that Bush would do absolutely anything, so long as it was evil).
Posted by: frankly0 on January 2, 2008 at 9:18 PM |

Well, if you had been awake in 2002 and 2003 you would have heard the stories coming from the whitehouse that Bush's mind was already made up, or the rumors of his intentions to invade Iraq that were circulating before his inauguration (!!!) among countless other indications that despite anything the UN inspectors found or didn't find, war was a forgone conclusion. And if you lived in Texas between 1994 and 2000, or followed the careers of Bush, Cheney, and Rove with the least bit of attention, you would have had the sense to know that they are absolutely amoral (I don't share the Xtians' dualistic worldview, so I try not to use words like "evil"). But apparently you're one of those pricks who can't admit someone else was right while your head was up your ass.

Posted by: jussumbody on January 2, 2008 at 9:52 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not sure McCain would have been so brazen about attacking Iraq instead of a real AlQaeda target.

So instead of troops mired in Iraq, we would've toppled or messed around in Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Morocco, and then places like Syria and Lebanon.

Posted by: Crissa on January 2, 2008 at 10:51 PM | PERMALINK

I just don't see how that was obvious, except in hindsight. (I realize that many claimed it was obvious, but those are in almost all cases fanatical people who simply believe that Bush would do absolutely anything, so long as it was evil)."

That is an utterly ridiculous and inaccurate assertion.

Senator Bob Graham, a whole bunch of other congresspersons, Al Gore, Scott Ritter, and many others called BS on the Cheney administration's war desires. The State and Energy Depts. intelligence divisions had it right.

Hardly fanatics.

Posted by: Chris Brown on January 2, 2008 at 10:56 PM | PERMALINK

Lighten up a little on frankly0, will you? He's one of the old-timers. Back in '02 and early '03 not everyone had given up hope that the war could be averted. Why else did we hold those giant anti-war marches? We weren't just trying to position ourselves to say "I told you so" afterwards.

The invasion of Iraq was such a batshit crazy thing to do that I wouldn't immediately assume that McCain would have done it, but I'm still not entirely sure why Bush did it.

Posted by: bad Jim on January 2, 2008 at 11:37 PM | PERMALINK

Goldwater over LBJ

Posted by: Luther on January 3, 2008 at 12:14 AM | PERMALINK

I'm a Yellow Dog democrat, and I think McCain is a scoundrel, a coward, and opportunist and dangerously simplistic militarist--more dangerous to this country than any other candidate this cycle with the exception of Giulaini.

But if John McCain had been elected in 2000 (and the hard right hated him too much for that to happen--"agents of intolerance"), 9/11 would not have happened.

Posted by: Jim on January 3, 2008 at 12:37 AM | PERMALINK

I have a hard time imagining anybody being so incredibly stupid as to invade the wrong country- the one Moslem country in the Middle East most likely have been anathema to the anti-secularist Bin Laden and Al Qaida. Don't forget: in 2002, alcohol was openly sold in the shops and streets in Baghdad, men were clean shaven, women uncovered- and holding official positions in education and government. And education was secular, not religious. That's why anyone with half a brain knew that the Bush/Cheney/Rice attempts in 2002 to link Iraq and Al Qaida were as absurd as linking Israel with Hamas. McCain is a lot of things, but he is the last person I would have expected to have "wasted" American soldiers' lives (his word, if I recall, uttered in a moment of unconscious honesty, which he had to hastily take back in a moment of hypocrisy) by invading the wrong country.

As to preventing 9-11, I really doubt that any person who was president at the time would have acted to prevent it- not Clinton in a 3rd term, not Carter, Reagan, Nixon, Johnson, or Kennedy. Because the fatal mistakes that were made were too far down the food chain. They were endemic to the institutional warfare between the FBI and CIA and the laziness and complacency that led the FBI's premier counterterrorism agent, John O'Neill, to resign his position in the summer of 2001 and- ironically and fatally- take over as head of security in the World Trade Center, where he died on 9-11.

Posted by: James Finkelstein on January 3, 2008 at 12:43 AM | PERMALINK

As a number of commenters have argued that McCain wouldn't have let 9/11 happen, and a number have argued that even if 9/11 had happened on his watch McCain wouldn't have attacked Iraq, I suspect that y'all might be almost on the verge of figuring out why the PNAC machine saw to it that McCain didn't get the nomination.

Posted by: Dave Howard on January 3, 2008 at 3:50 AM | PERMALINK

Luther: "Goldwater over LBJ."

Goldwater campaigned on what he thought to be an effective overarching theme: "In your heart, you know he's right."

Unfortunately for him, LBJ's campaign counterpunched ruthlessly: "In your guts, you know he's nuts!"

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii, and formerly from Pasadena on January 3, 2008 at 4:05 AM | PERMALINK

you liberals are idiots - of course McCain would have been aggressive towards Saddam - because it was the right thing to do - not that the war was a good idea necessarily but an aggressive stance at that strategic point in history was. And that is why if the left is stupid enough to nominate Obama and McCain manages to build his present momentum into the GOP nomination McCain will destroy him. America may have 'soured' on the war but it still wants a president who is willing and able to take troops into a place like Iraq and sure as shit Obama's anti-war rhetoric will come back to haunt him big time if he has to run against war hero McCain. The juvenile silliness of 'audacity of hope' vs 6 years in a north Vietnamese prison - good luck with that one.

Posted by: goosenut on January 3, 2008 at 6:42 AM | PERMALINK

If things would have gone differently in 2000? What a question, One thing is for sure we would not be going through the hard times we are going through now because of Bush and his administration of Misfits, and the deficit would not be at an all time high because of this IDIOT and his wars.

Posted by: Al on January 3, 2008 at 8:13 AM | PERMALINK

Not sure I agree with the notion that "Bush was the neophyte, McCain was the neocon". Remember the revelation that Bush had been handed a war chest of $150 million before the Iowa straw poll in 1999?

Bush was given that money for a reason, and it was to beat McCain in the primary.

I don't think McCain would have done much differently than Bush, but I don't think Gore would have done a lot different either. (Remember Gore's VP would have been Lieberman.)

I think that both of them would have ended up bowing to pressure from Congress to go to war whether they wanted to or not. McCain would have needed a lot less pressure to make him go, but Gore would have had to in the end anyway.

In many ways, we would be in much the same place now, but I think a lot of the little "tweaks" Bush has made over the years might not have happened under either of the others. Both Gore and McCain would certainly have taken stronger positions against torture, for example. Wiretapping? Maybe that as well.

In the war department, I'm positive McCain would have gone into Afghanistan and threatened war against a half a dozen other countries, possibly including Iraq. I think, however, that he would have considered targets like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan more important, which may mean the miltary would simply be in a quagmire in a different country now.

Maybe de-Baathification would never have happened. Beyond a few indisputables, it's all speculation at this point.

Posted by: Splitting Image on January 3, 2008 at 9:38 AM | PERMALINK

I don't see McCain invading Iraq either. One thing that has always stuck me about Bush's rationale for the Iraq War and I think really sits close to if not directly at the heart of it was his statement regarding Saddam back in '02: "This is the guy who tried to kill my dad". We'll never know exactly how much that colored his perception of Iraq, but IMO, it spoke volumes. I like to think that McCain, who is every bit a hothead, wouldn't have the same overarching desire to go after Saddam and Iraq.

Posted by: Quinn on January 3, 2008 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK

As time-traveling science fiction stories often indicate, a change in past events change all future events. As Zbig Brezinski commented, it took an extraordinary confluence of incompetence and willful ignorance on the part of the Bush administration for the 9/11 disaster to happen. Had anyone else been President, Repub or Dem, there would still be two towers standing in lower Manhattan today. Our biggest concerns would be over how to use our growing surplus to boost our economy and strengthen the dollar overseas.

Posted by: John on January 3, 2008 at 12:08 PM | PERMALINK
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