Tuesday, November 4, 2008
The Worst Possible Outcome
I have been tossing this idea around in my head: three major twists of political history from 2000 until 2008 have worked to keep John McCain out of the White House.
Consider the following counterfactuals:
Al Gore wins Florida in 2000 in a disputed recount: Now conservatives are angry. Just when they have a decent shot at the White House, Rove/Bush screw it up. Another four years in the wilderness. And they have the feeling they were robbed. 9/11 still occurs, because the biggest failure was the lack of imagination to see what al-Qaeda could do and that failure crossed party lines. In the months that follow 9/11, Republicans begin the drum beat for investigations, etc. But unlike actual history, the attack is blamed almost entirely on the Democrats. There is no "My Pet Goat" moment for the Republicans. President Bush didn't receive the August 16, 2001 PDB briefing -- President Gore did. And the inability to turn the tragedy into a bipartisan failure -- President Gore had been a top government official since 1993 -- dooms the Democrats on national security issues. (This counterfactual shows that most of the blame arguments post-9/11 were nothing more than political CYA; I have no doubt that this counterfactual world has Sean Hannity mentioning the PDB every 8.2 seconds). The Republicans turn to McCain, who has the national security credentials to credibly and savagely attack Gore. With the full backing of the base, he could have run to the center and been the relaxed candidate that nearly took down Bush in 2000. And McCain is not facing the loose, relaxed Gore we see today. He is facing the wooden Bill Clinton-lite who is barely able to get out of his own way.
John Kerry squeaks out a win in Ohio in 2004: Again, you have to remember that the President Kerry that would be running for re-election in 2008 is not the John Kerry you saw on Meet The Press this weekend. Think about the awkward politician who votes for it before he votes against it. As Iraq deteriorates -- because there is no way that President Kerry doubles down in Iraq with a surge in 2007 the way President Bush did -- the blame game begins. Right now, Iraq can be squarely laid at the feet of the Republicans. Beyond the initial authorization vote, Democrats can escape all political repercussions for how well/poorly Iraq goes. But in this counterfactual world, the election of President Kerry gives the Democrats a political stake in the matter. And the question rings out, 'Who lost Iraq?" (Again, it is assumed that counterfactual Sean Hannity will claim that we were doing fine in 2004, President Kerry cut and ran, Democrats are weak on national defense, Democrats favor surrender, etc.). The huge Democrat gains of the 2006 election? Since they were a reaction to President Bush's leadership, they are gone. While President Kerry would not have been quite as incompetent on Katrina, I doubt that he would have had enough time (roughly 8-9 months) to make substantial changes to the Bush-era disaster preparedness scenarios. And he would have been hamstrung by the Stooges-like leadership of Blanco and Nagin. The Republicans turn to McCain, who has the national security credentials to credibly and savagely attack Kerry. With the full backing of the base, he could have run to the center and been the relaxed candidate that nearly took down Bush in 2000.
Hillary Clinton beats Obama in the primaries: This would be a far different race if it was McCain v. Clinton. McCain would have never needed to shore up his base. Almost everything that has turned off open-minded voters about John McCain has been an effort to shore up the base and guarantee that they come out to vote. Sarah Palin, William Ayers, the constant attack ads, socialism, etc. Steve Schmidt, Nichole Wallace, etc. are the JV team of the Bush/Cheney 04 campaign. BC04 won by getting out more Republicans than Kerry got out Democrats. KE04 hit every metric a D would want to hit in Ohio and still lost. But they are trying to replicate that magic in a campaign where it is doomed to fail. They haven't sufficiently scared the base about Obama and have turned off voters in the process. But with Hillary, the base would be sufficiently scared. They may not especially like McCain, they may not like the idea of an Obama presidency, but the idea of President Hillary Clinton sends chills down the spine of every Republican. I think a lot of the Hail Marys (Palin, suspending the campaign, etc.) wouldn't have been necessary, because you don't need to give the base any more reasons to vote. With the full backing of the base, he could have run to the center and been the relaxed candidate that nearly took down Bush in 2000. And Hillary would have had to spend time repairing a war within her base as the Obama supporters threaten to vote McCain or stay home. That would have forced her to the left, playing into McCain's hands.
Instead, McCain has to wait until 2008 and draw the worst possible opponent for his style. Politics is a lot like boxing -- styles matter when it comes to matchups. McCain's political style has been to vote with the party on plenty of issues, but when he doesn't agree, he makes sure everyone knows about it. He always tries to position himself as the non-ideological crusading independent. In all three counterfactuals, he would have been able to position himself as the Washington outsider, condemn business as usual in the capitol and keep his normal style without losing the base. But instead, he faced a candidate who was well-positioned to move to the center, had a strong committed base behind him and who didn't enter the race with the Republican base ready for blood. McCain faced a boxer with similar skills in a match where all of the externals of the political environment were for the other guy. And he is going to go down in a Bob Dole-like defeat as a result.