The McCain Counterfactual

Thomas Frank was on MSNBC this morning promoting his new book, Pity the Billionaire: The Unlikely Resurgence of the American Right:

JOE SCARBOROUGH: After the collapse of the markets in 2008, you would expect a huge populist revival, a revival of the left, but actually two years later the biggest Republican landslide nationally in U.S. history. Why?

THOMAS FRANK: Exactly opposite of what you would expect. You know, if your model is the 1930s, everything went in the opposite direction…The populist feeling was really captured by the other side, by the conservative movement. You know, they got out there in the parks with the rallies—the Tea Party movement. And they were the ones denouncing the banks, denouncing Wall Street. They really captured that sensibility…

It is amazing when you think about it. The Republican Party, especially given the failure of the economic philosophy that governed it and governed the country, itself seemed on the edge of collapse after Republicans oversaw the near-collapse of the financial system.

As Frank said, one would expect a populist revolt from the left, like what happened much later with the Occupy movement. Wikipedia has a nice summary of the motivation of the “different local groups” that constitute what we know as the Occupy movement:

among the prime concerns is the claim that large corporations and the global financial system control the world in a way that disproportionately benefits a minority, undermines democracy and is unstable.

It’s not that hard to hear an echo of Tea Party resentment in those concerns. There is something of an overlapping outrage between populists left and right, when it comes to big banks and corporations and their inordinate influence.

But where were the Occupiers in the fall of 2008?

Well, oddly, the election of Barack Obama short-circuited that leftist revolt. Folks on the left were disposed to give him a chance to change things. I don’t think there is any doubt that if McCain had won in 2008, instead of witnessing the rise of the angry, ultra-conservative Tea Party, railing against bank bailouts and big government and that black man in the White’s House, we would have had a revival of left-leaning populism, one modeled very much on the Occupy movement, attacking the system from a different angle, an attack in support of the “99%” and most definitely an attack on the influence of money in politics.

Indeed, how different would our politics look today, in 2012, if there had been no Tea Party, no hysteria about the Scary Negro and his “socialist” policies? Certainly a President McCain would have had to bail out the banks in 2009, as Obama did, following George Bush’s tentative rescue. And certainly there would have been a 2010 mid-term resurgence by Democrats based on that bailout.

But would a populism from the left have been as fierce as what we saw, and continue to see to some extent, as that coming from the right? Would that populism have been as anxious to embrace every weird conspiracy dreamed up by liberal radio and television personalities? Would Democrats have regrouped after McCain’s election and secretly plotted to destroy his presidency on inauguration night, as Republicans did?

No. Why? Because there just aren’t that many liberal radio and television personalities to begin with. And those who do exist tend not to be Rush Limbaugh-size conspiracy fools.

More important, though, is that Democrats, the party of government, would have had no initial interest in sabotaging a McCain presidency, especially since McCain had periodically demonstrated in his career that he was willing to work with them to get things done. Because of their fondness for good government, it just isn’t in their nature to gum up the works (something that will have to change if Romney-Ryan, after a campaign of utter dishonesty built on Republican congressional obstruction, “takes back” the White’s House).

Left out of this analysis so far is the influence, which has come to be a dominating influence, of evangelicals on the Tea Party movement. The so-called teavangelicals have to a large degree muddled a movement that was energized by a libertarian antipathy to big government, debt and deficits, high taxes, and other “unconstitutional” intrusions.

Today the movement has been focused more on social issues, like contraception, abortion and homosexuality, because the movement is whiter, wealthier, manlier, and, most important, more evangelical than the population as a whole.

It’s entertaining to speculate about what might have happened if the country had chosen John McCain four years ago. But it is not that entertaining to observe what has happened to the country, particularly what has happened to the Republican Party, since America elected its first African-American in the midst of the worst economic turmoil in 80 years.

In fact, it is downright depressing.



  1. I think your analysis is spot on, Duane. If Obama had lost in 2008 I think he would have played an important role in the Democratic party’s resurgence and would have been well-nigh unbeatable now, but with a mandate.

    “Life turns on a dime. Sometimes towards us, but more often it spins away, flirting and flashing as it goes: so long, honey, it was good while it lasted, wasn’t it?”

    ― Stephen King, 11/22/63

    “Teavangelical.” Catchy!


    • Jim, I wish I could take credit for the “teavangelical” term, but as far as I know the credit belongs to a Christian Broadcasting Network journalist named David Brody, who now has a whole book about the phenomenon.

      And I will have to think about your suggestion that Obama “would have played an important role in the Democratic Party’s resurgence,” after a McCain win. I think Hillary Clinton would have been in the position to say, “I told you so,” to the Democratic electorate and she would have led the resurgence. Or perhaps they could have teamed up as the de facto ticket and they both could have played a part, but I doubt they could have worked out the messy details.

      But I do agree there would have been an unassailable mandate, but that mandate means nothing without a 60+ majority in the Senate. And I am one who believes that after a mid-term defeat in 2010, Republicans would have mended their approach and become more open to compromise, thus saving them from a devastating shellacking this year. Therefore a 60-seat majority would have been tough.

      Man, this is fun!



  2. You seem to come close to suggesting that maybe would be better off if McCain had won 4 years ago. Am I misunderstanding??? I’m a little surprised to see you suggest that.


    • Bruce,

      Your question bothers me because I’m not sure how to answer it.

      If one looks at the long-term well-being of the country, perhaps it is the case that a McCain victory, bringing with it all the testosterone in foreign policy and the domestic fumbling with the economy, would have, as Jim suggested above, brought a more certain “mandate” in 2010 and beyond, as the electorate reacted to the McCain presidency. Thus, one could argue that in order to finally rid ourselves of Republican extremism (and make no mistake that McCain ran as a right-winger), we needed another four years for the American people to sample the poison.

      But I can’t look at it that way because in the process, a lot of hard-working, play-by-the-rules folks would have been hurt. Not only do I believe a lot more American kids would have died in a foreign war or two, but domestically all of the pent-up desire to slash government spending so radically would have rendered a lot of folks without a safety net to cushion their fall from the Great Recession (think: unemployment benefit extensions, for instance, or an increase in food-stamp eligibility, both of which helped folks keep their heads above water). And that recession would have lasted much longer.

      So, I must say that at least in the short-term, people were much better off with an Obama victory, especially recession victims and people who work in the auto industry and its associated suppliers (that’s why Obama is doing so well in Ohio and Michigan). And since counterfactuals naturally cannot take into account all the possibilities, especially many years out, I am inclined to go with what I know: Despite the teasing potential of a long-term demolition of right-wing extremism that might have come with a McCain presidency, America is much better off because Barack Obama defeated him in 2008.



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