All that would have been required to achieve electoral parity and a plausible road map to the White House would have been for the Republican nominee to have transformed himself into ... (Warning: Mind-bending content ahead) ... the John McCain of the 2000 primaries.
WOW, thanks for the warning, Walter. For a minute there it was like I was on another one of those Maverick-induced Magic Carpet rides, and everything went all Lava-lampy an' stuff. If I hadn't been prepared my mind might'a bent and stayed like that.
Maverick! All I can figure at this point is that they had really, really good doughnuts on the Press bus in '00. Eight years later, and four years after McCain knelt and kissed George W.'s ring, ten months into a presidential campaign remarkable--even among presidential campaigns--for its intelligence-insulting, content-free, listless meanderings, John McCain can still evoke the same sort of pastel reveries as the first girl who let you reach under her sweater. Haven't we been over this before? McCain's "maverick" credentials comprise his support for campaign finance reform, or "reform", rather famously called into question in this very campaign, and his taking on ("taking on"), in 2000, the Falwells and Robertsons (here, also famously, his opposition vanished, this time even before the campaign had gotten underway).
Oh, and the Bush Tax Cuts, which he opposed before wanting to make permanent. What's interesting in all this is the degree to which a Press corps which was consumed by the question of Al Gore's cradle-fed presidential asperations, which mused aloud about whether Hillary Clinton--alone among the twenty-seven declared candidates--wasn't "too ambitious" for the Office, swallowed this stuff whole, without ever asking about context. John McCain, campaign finance reformer, was the same John McCain whose Senate career almost ended with Charles Keating's bankroll up his fundament just two years earlier; the Religious Right establishment--which was already sinking, only to be artificially buoyed by eight years of Bush--he "bucked" in 2000 was already in the bag for his opponent. (That IOU, you may recall, was settled when the administration signed over the pink slip to the Justice Department.) This is the same Republican party which was widely imagined to have Culturally goose-stepped itself out of an election at the '92 Convention, and it was the same Year 2000 where the country enjoyed a budget surplus due to the reversal of incontinent tax-cutting. It was also the Republican party which had failed to nominate an avowed "Movement" "Conservative" for two cycles, and where even the beholden dullard George W. was being presented as something else. Which makes those seem, at least, like they could have been carefully crafted positions dating to 1996. Not that I'm saying John McCain, vintage 2000, could not possibly have been the only politician in America whose positions were the result of personal principles, absent any and all electoral calculation. I'm just sayin' that if John McCain ever really was a true Maverick I'm glad he wasn't killed in the long fall off that pedestal.
While alternative history is inherently speculative,
Some say "masturbatory".
a reasonable case can be made that McCain could have won the 2008 Republican nomination even if he had not pandered to Falwell and had not abandoned his fiscal conservatism to compete with Romney on taxes. The victory formula would have been built around McCain's biography, his unorthodox style, his unstinting support for the surge in Iraq and the general feeling that eight years earlier the GOP made a tragic mistake with Bush. In short, McCain could have come out of the GOP primaries prepared to run against Obama as a true maverick rather than a generic Republican railing against socialism
Again, assuming that John McCain 2008 is a vote-pandering election whore, where McCain 2000 was a dewy bride unaware she was about to be ravaged by racist push-polling in South Carolina. We don't. In fact, we confess that to us no one who's remained a Republican over the past three decades has a right to wear virginal white and expect the rest of us to keep a straight face. (It's amusing to see Noonan and Brooks suddenly scruple at a Palin when they kept their party allegiance during and after Pat Buchanan's Convention speech in '92. He was a big audience pleaser, too.)
Let's recall that in 2005, still warm from that embrace of Bush, McCain surveyed the field and saw...Rudy Guiliani, the Mad Marxist of the GOP. To McCain's right were Bill Frist, who was bound to blow away in the first stiff breeze, and Sam Brownbeck, a religious wingnut who, as it turned out, couldn't even get religious wingnuts to vote for him. McCain steered right. You may, if you wish, believe that it's the first time he'd ever touched a tiller in his life. We don't. We think the idea that there's a "real" John McCain out there who, had he but followed his instincts, would now prove to be Just the Maverick We Need is a bunch of inherent monkey-spanking. And our opinion is one thing; the reality of a modern political campaign, where the first order of business is fund raising, is that he was forced to "move" "right" or get steamrollered. Run against Bush? The only Republican doing that in 2008 was Ron "Crazy Guy with the Lawn Chair and the .50 Caliber Muzzleloader" Paul.
Never mind that any flailing campaign exiting October would have been improved had the campaigner been prescient about its central themes two years previous; McCain's a Republican, he's run as a Republican, and the Republicans of the Goldwater era have no answer to tough economic times, white collar criminality, or international crises that cannot be solved by carpet bombing. He was still ahead in some polls before corporate socialism hit the headlines and Sarah Palin hit the networks. Had he run as the imaginary Buck Stopin' Faux Populist, he'd now be watching Mitt Romney get his balls crushed.
Which brings up the one bit of "alternative history" we think would have vastly improved the McCain campaign. It's the one where someone says, "You'll be seventy-two fucking years old, John. Go live off your wife's money." And he takes the advice.