Digging into the archives, I came across this front-page headline from the February 4, 2000 edition of The Washington Post:
Polls show McCain is surging in S. Carolina;
Bush tries to calm fears among backers
This headline, from ten years ago today, comes a few days after the US Senator from Arizona, John McCain, had just scored an upset over Texas governor George W. Bush in the New Hampshire Republican primary.
So, if the headline is to be believed, McCain, coming out the Granite State, has the momentum to possible overtake Bush in the next major GOP battleground state of South Carolina.
However, the results two weeks later show a different story as Bush defeats McCain 53 percent to 42.
So what happened between the McCain surge of February 4 and the Bush victory of February 19
Well, if you are Richard Davis, McCain’s campaign manager at the time, you have this theory, which you share in an op-ed piece entitled, “The Anatomy of a smear campaign“.
In South Carolina, Bush Republicans were facing an opponent who was popular for his straight talk and Vietnam war record. They knew that if McCain won in South Carolina, he would likely win the nomination. With few substantive differences between Bush and McCain, the campaign was bound to turn personal. The situation was ripe for a smear.
What was the smear campaign Davis speaks of? According to Davis, “push polling” was done by anonymous folk to suggest that the Bangladeshi daughter John and Cindy McCain had adopted was in fact the senator’s own illegitimate child. Enough people received these calls and believed this rumor to create just enough doubt to stop McCain’s momentum.
While I could take this electronic opportunity to decry smear campaigns, negative advertising, or the efficiency and ruthlessness of the Karl Rove attack machine, I take finger to keyboard to explore another possibility.
What if John McCain had won the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary?
Let’s imagine that the “push polling” executed in the Palmetto State did not occur or was not as effective as it was. McCain continues with his surge and wins South Carolina. Early momentum in a party’s primary is extremely important and so with two major wins under his belt (New Hampshire, South Carolina), it is conceivable that the story the media begins to spin out is one of McCain as the front-runner and Bush as the wannabe.
With prospects surging, McCain goes on to win Arizona and Michigan (events that both happened). Without the sting of the “push polling” still hurting, it is possible that McCain decides not to make comments bashing Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as having a “failed philosophy” and so McCain wins the state of Virginia (a state he actually loses in 2000). With five straight wins going into the March 7 primaries, it is probable that McCain wins more than the four (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont) states out of the thirteen up for grabs that he actually did.
If McCain wins the GOP nomination, he then goes against Vice President Al Gore. Putting aside Florida’s butterfly ballot and the United States Supreme Court, I will postulate that the mood of the country was still anti-Clinton enough (due to his scandal concerning his behavior with an intern and his impeachment) that McCain wins the 2000 presidential election.
The first thing that struck me when spinning out this counterfactual history was the fact that Dick Cheney would not have been the Vice President from 2001 to 2009. Most of Bush’s cabinet were people he knew, people his father knew, or people Dick Cheney knew. Cheney himself was Bush Senior’s Secretary of Defense. As McCain was the maverick of 2000, I cannot fathom McCain picking someone as his VP choice who came from the Bush circle or even from inside the Beltway.
In addition, Cheney was fifty-nine years old at the 2001 inauguration and McCain would be sixty-five. Most likely, to counter the age issue, McCain would have picked a younger person.
Just take a moment to ponder that thought again: A United States of America, from 2001 to 2009, without Dick Cheney in the halls of power.
The second scenario that plays out in my mind is that we would not be involved in a war in Iraq. In my alternate timeline, the attacks of September 11, 2001 do take place as I feel they would have occurred regardless of who was in the White House. However, the change with McCain as the Commander-In-Chief is that after he uses military force to invade Afghanistan and oust the Taliban, he does not become distracted with the siren song of the weapons of mass destruction allegedly held by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Because McCain does not have the Bush family history of war in Iraq (Desert Storm) and all of its psychological implications of trying to outdo the father, McCain stays focused on the war in Afghanistan. Since no forces are pulled away from the Afghan theater to invade Iraq, it is possible that Osama bin Laden is even captured or killed due to all of the military force concentrated in the area.
The last scenario that plays out with a McCain administration is the issue of torture and America’s image abroad. Without a war in Iraq, the behavior at the prison at Abu Grahib does not happen and none of those distrubing pictures are ever created for the world to see.
In addition, while memos may be circulated among members of McCain’s Department of Justice advocating the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, I cannot fathom John McCain, an ex-prisoner of war, condoning the use of torture. Ever.
It boggles my mind to ponder that had it not been for a series of negative phone calls in 2000, Dick Cheney would have been a private citizen for the past eight years, all the people killed in Iraq would still be alive, and the terms “United States of America” and “waterboarding” would not be tied together.