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Would We Be Better Off If John McCain Were President? August 1, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, John McCain.
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Roger’s note: for those of us who vote the “lesser of evils,” here is a cogent and fascinating argument.  Should it be McCain and not Obama who is selling out wholesale to the military-industrial complex, warring incessantly abroad and helping the rich get richer and the poor poorer at home, not only would the hypocritical Democratic Party be taking up indignant opposition, but, more importantly, there would be massive protests in the street (which is the only effective antidote to Imperial America).
AlterNet /Fred Branfman

Presidents serve the institutional interests of the
corporations behind them. A President McCain may have at least triggered a true
progressive fight.

July 17, 2011  |

Beth Rankin / Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Beth Rankin / Flickr
The following piece first appeared on Truthdig.

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 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
levels 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 remains
that McCain, a Republican 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.)

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 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 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.

Fred Branfman’s writing has been published in
the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, and other
publications. He is the author of several books on the Indochina War.
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