Democrats were united on one issue in the 2008 presidential election: the absolute disaster that a John McCain victory would have produced. And they were right. McCain as president would clearly have produced a long string of catastrophes: He would probably have approved a failed troop surge in Afghanistan, engaged in worldwide extrajudicial assassination, destabilized nuclear-armed Pakistan, failed to bring Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to the negotiating table, expanded prosecution of whistle-blowers, sought to expand executive branch power, failed to close Guantanamo, failed to act on climate change, pushed both nuclear energy and opened new areas to domestic oil drilling, failed to reform the financial sector enough to prevent another financial catastrophe, supported an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, presided over a growing divide between rich and poor, and failed to lower the jobless rate.

Nothing reveals the true state of American politics today more, however, than the fact that Democratic President Barack Obama has undertaken all of these actions and, even more significantly, left the Democratic Party far weaker than it would have been had McCain been elected. Few issues are more important than seeing behind the screen of a myth-making mass media, and understanding what this demonstrates about how power in America really works — and what needs to be done to change it.

First and foremost, McCain would have undoubtedly selected as treasury secretary an individual nominated by Wall Street — which has a stranglehold on the economy due to its enjoying 30 to 40 percent of all corporate profits. If he didn’t select Tim Geithner, a reliable servant of financial interests whose nomination might have allowed McCain to trumpet his “maverick” credentials, whoever he did select would clearly have also moved to bail out the financial institutions and allow them to water down needed financial reforms.

Ditto for the head of his National Economic Council. Although appointing Larry Summers might have been a bit of a stretch, despite his yeoman work in destroying financial regulation — thus enriching his old boss Robert Rubin and helping cause the Crash of 2008 — McCain could easily have found a Jack Kemp-like Republican “supply-sider” who would have duplicated Summers’ signal achievement of expanding the deficit to the highest level since 1950 (though perhaps with a slightly higher percentage of tax cuts than the Obama stimulus). The economy would have continued to sputter along, with growth rates and joblessness levels little different from today’s, and possibly even worse.

But McCain’s election would have produced a major political difference: It would have increased Democratic clout in the House and Senate. First off, there would have been no tea party, no “don’t raise the debt limit unless we gut the poor,” no “death panel” myth, no “Obama Youth” nonsense. Although there would have been plenty of criticism from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, the fact would have remained that McCain, a Republican, Caucasian war hero would never have excited the tea party animus as did the “Secret-Muslim Kenyan-Born Big-Government Fascist White-Hating Antichrist” Obama. Glenn Beck would have remained a crazed nonentity and been dropped far sooner by Fox News than he was. And Vice President Sarah Palin, despised by both McCain and his tough White House staff, would have been deprived of any real power and likely tightly muzzled against criticizing McCain’s relatively centrist (compared to her positions) policies.

Voters would almost certainly have increased Democratic control of the House and Senate in 2010, since the Republicans would have been seen as responsible for the weak U.S. economy. Democrats might even have achieved the long-desired 60 percent majority needed to kill the filibuster in one or both houses.

Democratic control of the House and Senate fostered by disastrous Republican policies would have severely limited McCain’s ability (as occurred with George W. Bush) to weaken Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance and other programs that aid those most in need. (Yes, domestic spending might have been cut less if McCain had won.)

And had McCain proposed “health insurance reform,” because health insurers saw a golden opportunity to increase their customer base and profits while retaining their control, the Democrats would at least have passed a “public option” as their price for support. And possible Health and Human Services Secretary Newt Gingrich — placed in that position in a clever move to keep him away from economic or foreign policy — might have even accelerated needed improvements in computerizing patient records and other high-tech measures needed to cut health care costs, actions that he touted in his book on the subject.

In foreign and military policy, McCain would surely have approved Gen. David Petraeus’ “Afghanistan surge,” possibly increasing the number of U.S. troops there by 40,000 instead of 33,500. But Gen. Stanley McChrystal would probably have remained at the helm in Afghanistan, since he and his aides would never have disparaged McCain to Rolling Stone. McChrystal might have continued a “counterinsurgency” strategy, observing relatively strict rules of engagement, unlike his successor, Petraeus, who tore up those rules and has instead unleashed a brutal cycle of “counterterror” violence in southern Afghanistan. (Yes, far fewer Afghan civilians might have died had McCain won.)

McCain, like Obama, would probably have destabilized nuclear-armed Pakistan and strengthened militant forces there by expanding drone strikes and pushing the Pakistani military to launch disastrous offensives into tribal areas. And he would have given as much support as has Obama to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s opposition to a peace deal because he believes that present policies of strangling Gaza, annexing East Jerusalem, expanding West Bank settlements and walling off Palestinians are succeeding. (It is possible, however, that a McCain secretary of state might not have incited violence against unarmed American citizens — as did Hillary Clinton when she stated that Israelis, who killed nine unarmed members of the 2010 Gaza flotilla, “have the right to defend themselves” against letter-carrying 2011 Gaza flotilla members.)

While McCain would have wanted to keep 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2014, he might have been forced to reduce their numbers as much as has Obama. For McCain would have faced a strengthened and emboldened Democratic Congress, which might have seen electoral gold in responding to polls indicating the public had turned against the Afghanistan War — as well as a far stronger peace movement united against Republicans instead of divided as it now is between the desires for peace and seeing an Obama win in 2012. 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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