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If McCain Had Won
Posted on Jul 15, 2011
Most significantly, if McCain had won, not only would Democrats be looking at a Democratic landslide in the 2012 presidential race, but the newly elected Democratic president in 2013 might enjoy both a 60 percent or higher majority in both houses and a clear public understanding that it was Republican policies that had sunk the economy. He or she might thus be far better positioned to enact substantive reforms than was Obama in 2008, or will Obama even if he is re-elected in 2012.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March 1933 after a 42-month Depression blamed entirely on the Republicans. Although he had campaigned as a moderate, objective conditions both convinced him of the need for fundamental change—creating a safety net including Social Security, strict financial regulation, programs to create jobs, etc.—and gave him the congressional pluralities he needed to achieve them. A Democratic president taking office in 2013 after 12 years of disastrous Republican economic misrule might well have been likewise pushed and enabled by objective events to create substantive change.
Furious debate rages among Obama’s Democratic critics today on why he has largely governed on the big issues as John McCain would have done. Some believe he retains his principles but has been forced to compromise by political realities. Others are convinced he was a manipulative politico who lacked any real convictions in the first place.
But there is a far more likely—and disturbing—possibility. Based on those who knew him and his books, there is little reason to doubt that the pre-presidential Obama was a college professor-type who shared the belief system of his liberalish set: that ending climate change and reducing nuclear weapons were worthy goals, that it was important to “reset” U.S. policy toward the Muslim world, that torture and assassination were bad things, that Canadian-style single-payer health insurance made sense, that whistle-blowing and freedom of the press should be protected, Congress should have a say in whether the executive puts the nation into war, and that government should support community development and empowering poor communities.
Upon taking office, however, Obama—whatever his belief system at that point—found that he was unable to accomplish these goals for one basic reason: The president of the United States is far less powerful than media myth portrays. Domestic power really is in the hands of economic elites and their lobbyists, and foreign policy really is controlled by U.S. executive branch national security managers and a “military-industrial complex.” If a president supports their interests, as did Bush in invading Iraq, he or she can do a lot of damage. But, absent a crisis, a president who opposes these elites—as Obama discovered when he tried in the fall of 2009 to get the military to offer him an alternative to an Afghanistan troop surge—is relatively powerless.
Whether a Ronald Reagan expanding government and running large deficits in the 1980s despite his stated belief that government was the problem, or a Bill Clinton imposing a neoliberal regime impoverishing hundreds of millions in the Third World in the 1990s despite his rhetorical support for helping the poor, anyone who becomes president has little choice but to serve the institutional interests of a profoundly amoral and violent executive branch and the corporations behind them.
The U.S. executive branch functions to promote its version of U.S. economic and geopolitical interests abroad—including engaging in massive violence which has killed, wounded or made homeless more than 21 million people in Indochina and Iraq combined. And it functions at home to maximize the interests of the corporations and individuals who fund political campaigns—today supported by a U.S. Supreme Court whose politicized decision to expand corporations’ control over elections has made a mockery of the very notion of “checks and balances.” The executive branch’s power extends to the mass media, most of whose journalists are dependent on executive information leaks and paychecks from increasingly concentrated media corporations. They thus serve executive power far more than they challenge it.
No one more demonstrates what happens to a human being who joins the executive branch than Hillary Clinton, a former peace movement supporter whose 1969 Wellesley commencement address stated that “our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living”; praised “a lot of the New Left [that] harkens back to a lot of the old virtues”; and decried “the hollow men of anger and bitterness, the bountiful ladies of righteous degradation, all must be left to a bygone age.” Clinton the individual served on the board of the Children’s Defense Fund, promoted helping the poor at home and Third World women abroad and at one point was even often compared to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Although her transformation began once she decided to try to become president, it became most visible after she joined the executive branch as secretary of state. The former peace advocate has now become a major advocate for war-making, a scourge of whistle-blowers and a facilitator of Israeli violence.
But while rich and powerful elites have always ruled in America, their power has periodically been successfully challenged at times of national crisis: the Civil War, the Progressive era, the Depression. America is clearly headed for such a moment in the coming decade, as its economy continues to decline due to a parasitic Wall Street, mounting debt, strong economic competitors, overspending on the military, waste in the private health care sector and elites declaring class war against a majority of Americans.
Naomi Klein has written penetratingly of “Disaster Capitalism,” which occurs when financial and corporate elites benefit from the economic crises they cause. But the reverse has also often proved true: a kind of “Disaster Progressivism” often occurs when self-interested elites cause so much suffering that policies favoring democracy and the majority become possible.
The United States will clearly face such a crisis in the coming decade. It is understandable that many Americans will want to focus on re-electing Obama in 2012. Although Democrats and the country would have been better off if McCain had won in 2008, this is not necessarily true if a Republican wins in 2012—especially if the GOP nominates Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann.
But however important the 2012 election, far more energy needs to be devoted to building mass organizations that challenge elite power and develop the kinds of policies—including massive investment in a “clean energy economic revolution,” a carbon tax and other tough measures to stave off climate change, regulating and breaking up the financial sector, cost-effective entitlements like single-payer health insurance, and public financing of primary and general elections—which alone can save America and its democracy in the painful decade to come.
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