Would it Be Worse if McCain Were President?

For anyone with the wits to realize that the lunatics now run the asylum the Republican Party has become, it is axiomatic that, no matter how awful Democrats may be, Republicans are worse. The evidence is overwhelming and it mounts day by day. But does it follow that it is always better for Democrats to win elections? I suspect not, and not because things must get worse before they can get better. For less dubious reasons than that, it is far from obvious, for example, that the situation we confront would now be worse if John McCain had beaten Barack Obama.

Of course, I mean the McCain who, when he ran for president, could still call himself a "maverick"; not the Tea Party wannabe who has moved right by orders of magnitude in the course of a primary election campaign in what is perhaps the most retrograde state in the Union. Had McCain won in 2008, he might have freed himself enough from fear of his party's base to get back into his groove.

The idea that the Obama administration is no better or perhaps even worse than a McCain administration would have been is, for most liberals, unthinkable. But this is a disabling and dogmatic conviction. Its prevalence is one reason why the Democratic leadership is able to evince contempt for their party's most steadfast voters. They know that they can do anything, and the unions, the gays, the feminists, the environmentalists and even the peace movement will still be there for them.

Thus the musings of Eric Alterman and friends in the Aug. 30/Sept. 6 issue of the Nation are sadly typical of what we will be hearing more of as the November elections approach. The gist is that it is crucial to continue cutting Obama slack. Sure, his presidency has been "disappointing," but the constraints were such that he could hardly have done better. Not to worry, though; Obama is still the man. It's just that it's taking him longer to change the world than liberals once thought it would. But if we keep the faith, Obama will do in his second term what he did not do in his first -- at the beginning of which, as Alterman fails to mention, his administration squandered an historical opportunity of a kind that very rarely appears. This is lesser evilism at its most pathetic. Tea Partiers may be unmatched when it comes to not facing reality, but liberals give them a good run for their money.

Consider Iraq. Candidate McCain got into trouble justifiably when he said he had no problem with American troops staying there indefinitely. As he pointed out, we still have troops in Germany, Japan and South Korea. Of course, they are there for geo-political reasons, not to shore up collaborationist regimes. But no matter; the important thing is that they are based abroad and not engaged in "combat." If McCain had been elected and stayed true to his word -- and, on this matter, why wouldn't he? -- he would now be doing just what Obama is doing: prettifying and rebranding an occupation he intends to maintain indefinitely. This is essentially what George Bush had in mind too; and it is what most Obama voters thought they were voting against.

Iraq may be a wash; but Afghanistan, a blunder of equal or greater proportions, is something else. Candidate McCain had little to say about that then forgotten war; Obama was gung-ho. Of course, the conventional wisdom was that he didn't really mean it; he just didn't want Republicans or Hillary Clinton calling him a "wuss." However, it is now clear that, unless he is still worrying about appearing "soft on defense," he really did mean it. Would we be worse off under McCain? It is impossible to be sure, but I think we'd be in a better place. For one thing, McCain had nothing to prove. For another, his generals wouldn't have dared be as insubordinate as they have been under Obama. And, most of all, though he lacks the moral and intellectual capacities to draw the right lessons from the Vietnam War and therefore, unlike Obama, really doesn't know better, McCain does know how self-defeating counterinsurgency warfare can be; he knows it from his own experience. The post-Vietnam brass now calling the shots live to get counterinsurgency right, to correct what they think their predecessors got wrong. Would they be as empowered as they now are if they had to answer to a Commander-in-Chief who understood how foolish their thinking is?

Or consider another of Bush's legacies. The first order of business after inauguration day ought to have been to restore the rule of law by settling accounts with Bush-era war criminals. There was no chance McCain would do anything like that, but some voters did think Obama might. Instead he took that prospect off the table faster than Nancy Pelosi ruled out impeaching Cheney and Bush in 2006. McCain would not have brought Cheney and Bush to justice, but having been a POW himself and having endured torture, he would likely have been less inclined than Obama to let the issue drop in order to "look forward." But even if he weren't, he could hardly have done worse.

Or consider the revival of nativism and racism that the Far Right has been stirring up since Obama assumed office. They didn't do anything like that under Bush and they wouldn't be doing it under McCain. Indeed, on "illegal" immigrants, McCain's position, before his primary fight with J.D. Hayworth, was reasonable and decent. If he were president, perhaps now we'd have "bipartisan" immigration reform. And since there is not a moron in America who would "accuse" McCain of being a "secret Muslim," the billionaires behind the Tea Party, if active at all, would be having a much harder time translating anti-government hostility into islamophobic bigotry.

On other issues, the balance sheet is more equivocal. On matters of special concern to constituencies that Democrats take for granted -- among others, labor, gays, and racial minorities -- we'd have had principled inaction under McCain, while, under Obama, "pragmatic" equivocation has given rise to a few cosmetic improvements and a great deal of les- than-benign neglect.

Under Obama there has been health care (actually, health care insurance) reform that will eventually make things somewhat better for many people, though at the cost of further entrenching the power of health care profiteers whose machinations will continue to make more radical changes necessary. Much the same is true of the financial reforms Obama got through Congress. McCain would likely have done worse on both counts. And, on the most pressing of all issues today, job creation, Obama, though doing far too little, almost certainly did more than McCain, a dedicated free-marketeer, would have done, despite his inner need to placate Blue Dogs and Republicans.

On balance, then, it probably is a good thing that McCain lost. But it's not a slam-dunk. We should remember that over the coming months as liberals delude themselves while militating to keep the illusions of 2008 alive. They could do with a dose of disillusionment. Yes, there is something to be said for voting for the lesser evil. But the main task is to prepare for the next time circumstances make real "change" feasible. To that end, what is needed most is a more apt and effective political representation than the decrepit Democratic Party of today.