Taking a page from Marvel Comics, I decided it would be worth exploring where we would be today had their been a different outcome in the Republican primaries seven years ago. Although John McCain has served as a piñata for conservatives over the past several years, it can be argued that conservatives would have been better off had McCain beaten Bush in 2000, assuming he would have went on to win the general election. Before you assail me with a list of McCain’s deviations from conservatism, it’s worth thinking of him relative to the current occupant of the White House.
Two of the issues that have caused McCain problems among conservatives are campaign finance reform and immigration, but Bush signed the former and also pushed the latter, so those are a wash.
We don’t know if McCain would have been as reliable on judicial appointments, but it should be noted that in retrospect the “Gang of 14”? compromise that he drew heat for seemed to have worked, and now that Republicans are in the minority, having the filibuster is useful. And over the years, he has consistently voted to confirm conservative judges, including Robert Bork.
The big area where McCain would have clearly been worse is taxes, given that he opposed the Bush tax cuts. However, on the flip side, there’s reason to believe that he would have been a lot better at restraining spending. At a minimum, a President McCain would not have given us a Medicare prescription drug plan, as he was one of only 10 Republicans to vote against it. If you asked me whether I would give up the Bush tax cuts if it meant the prescription drug plan never happened, that’s a trade I’d be tempted to make, because it’s much easier to cut taxes than it is to contain the growth of government, and I believe Bush’s fiscal irresponsibility will lead to tax increases down the road anyway. There’s a good chance that the Democratic Congress will let the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010, but we’ll still be stuck with that disastrous drug plan, or something even worse.
The big upgrade of a McCain presidency, I believe, would have been national security. For years before the surge was announced, McCain had been clamoring for more troops in Iraq, and while we don’t know whether or not he would have ultimately chosen to topple Saddam, there’s good reason to believe that if he did go in, he would have used adequate manpower and the results would have likely been a lot better.
None of this is necessarily an argument for McCain in 2008, and this analysis could be seen more as an indictment of President Bush. But for all the criticism McCain has received from conservatives over the years, there is an argument to be made that he would have made a better president for conservatives than what we currently have.