The Long View: President John McCain

Here is a bit of alternative history John wrote in 2008. My favorite line:

Russian-American relations went from frosty to arctic after the first meeting between President McCain and President Vladimir Putin, when McCain made his notorious “evil ice dwarf” comment to reporters on the flight home.

I'm not sure whether it would have been better or worse to have such a bellicose man as president during Putin's reign, but it wouldn't have been dull.

We may yet see the spectacle of a Presidential election destroying one or both of the current American parties. Unfortunately, personal politics will not turn out well for anyone, but it seems to be an inevitable historical development.

The most prescient paragraph is this one, but it ended up being the Germans that instantiated it instead of the Americans. With models of history, big picture events can be easy to predict, but the details are elusive:

The Administration was not so lucky with an immigration measure that, in effect, granted provisional legal status to everyone in the United States, and this without first ensuring that the federal government had physical control of the borders. The immigration enforcement agencies had to stand down at the borders (including airports) and internally; the chance of apprehending someone whom it might have been proper to detain under the new rules was too small to justify the expense of acting. The immigration bureaucracy was deluged with millions of applications in the space of a few weeks and soon ceased functioning at all. Visas to the United States became unobtainable. Meanwhile, television images showed a steady passage of persons crossing the borders, as well as the appearance of new, impromptu municipalities at the edges of cities and sometimes in public parks. For the most part, these settlements were not, as was incorrectly reported at the time, “colonies” of new immigrants, but associations of longterm undocumented persons who took advantage of the relaxed enforcement regime to move from cramped and often dangerous accommodations. There were notable outbreaks of civil disorder in several places. 

Unlike Angela Merkel, President McCain apologized.


President John McCain
January 2001 to January 2009

The presidency of John McCain is likely to prove as great a favorite of popular historians as that of Theodore Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, his presidency was prefaced by a heroic earlier life. Like Roosevelt, McCain was renowned, if not precisely for his wit, then for a reliably dramatic and articulate temper. Both presidents, throughout their careers, were keenly interested in administrative structures per se. However, while these presidents were unusually knowledgeable about foreign and military issues, the circumstances of McCain’s administration gave him far greater opportunity to work in these areas; indeed, McCain has been called “Theodore Roosevelt with Woodrow Wilson’s problems.”

Contemporary political commentators have sometimes suggested McCain would not have received the Republican nomination in 2000, had it not been for the publication at a critical time in the primary election process of an old scandal involving his principal opponent. (The irony is that the information was Democratic opposition research intended for the general election but apparently leaked early to the press by accident.) Though no serious misbehavior was involved, the issue managed to depress his opponent’s appeal in the early southern primaries. McCain’s bid thus survived until the nominating process moved to the Midwest and Mountain states, where he enjoyed greater natural advantages. Still, the delegate vote at the Republican Convention that year was the closest in living memory. The nomination would have gone differently if a single state delegation had been on the other side. The general election, in contrast, was a popular vote and Electoral College landslide for the Republicans. 

Several reasons have been adduced to explain this result. The candidates seemed to differ only in degree except on social issues; these were muted in the election. However, the Democratic nominee was generally regarded as a continuation of the prior Administration, which had fallen under an ethical cloud. In any case, the popular dissatisfaction with the Democrats did not extend to Congress; McCain’s party actually lost control of the Senate by a single seat.

The McCain Administration was the first since that of Richard Nixon to focus from the outset primarily on foreign affairs. These president’s early efforts did not invariably appear to improve matters. In his first meeting in Paris with the heads of the NATO countries, for instance, President McCain publicly engaged in a multilingual shouting match with President Jacques Chirac about who was more serious about controlling carbon emissions. Russian-American relations went from frosty to arctic after the first meeting between President McCain and President Vladimir Putin, when McCain made his notorious “evil ice dwarf” comment to reporters on the flight home.

On some critical issues, the Administration does not seem to have been very well served by the terrorism experts retained from the prior Administration. These officials pushed their own pet projects and gave advice that almost invariably turned out to be misdirections. In any case, though the Administration came into office with a raft of proposed reforms for health care, education, infrastructure, and so on, these were shelved until the second term by the events of September 11: even the small, temporary, stimulative tax reduction that the Congress had enacted to deal with a mild recession was revoked to help pay for the subsequent unplanned military expenditures.

The president was in Washington at the time of the attacks in 2001. He was widely criticized for foolhardiness in rejecting Secret Service advice to leave the city, but his extemporaneous address from the Oval Office that evening has been classed as model of modern rhetoric. His national security team quickly determined that the base for the attacks was in Afghanistan: the existing regime and the terrorist leadership it had been hosting had been removed by the end of the year. This by no means ended the war, since Islamist factions quickly regrouped across the Pakistani border and instituted a cult of the martyrdom of their former leaders. Nonetheless, the speed and the success of the invasion bought the president the prestige to go ahead six months later with a decapitating raid against the Baathist regime in Iraq. There followed a systematic peace-keeping and nation-building program on which the president was accused of lavishing more attention than on the government of the United States.

The president was also criticized for confining the legal justification for the Iraq invasion to the UN resolutions of 1990 and 1991. His public case for the war was a set of sophisticated variations on the theme that the Baathist regime had never complied with the terms of the ceasefire of 1991 and could not be trusted to do so after the UN restrictions were removed. The president coined a phrase, “field of peace,” to describe what he was trying to “generate” in the Middle East. The concept was widely ridiculed, until the post-Iraq-invasion revelation by Libya of its enormous WMD programs and the new willingness of Iran to talk. These developments, and the fact that the nation-building strategy enabled the beginning of substantial troop reductions by the spring of 2004, silenced whatever criticism remained about the justification and conduct of the war.

Emboldened by the personal popularity which these successes accorded him, President McCain made one of the most daring moves in American political history: he ran for reelection as an independent. To some extent, this move was forced on him: the Republican Party had broken up. The president politely accepted the nomination of the convention with the greatest claim to institutional continuity, but he appeared on most ballots as the nominee of the “Rally for the Republic,” essentially a privately organized network of publicists, financial backers, and key constituency groups. The disintegration of the parties at the national level was a foreseeable instance of the general trend toward “disintermediation” between producers and consumers in all areas of life. In 2004, his principal opponent in the general election was still a “Democrat,” though the nature of that group had changed profoundly since 1992. Thereafter, the movement toward increasingly personalized politics seemed irresistible.

The Administration’s predilection for comprehensive, systematic treatment of domestic issues had mixed results. The new strategy of replacing employer-provided health insurance with privately owned policies had the primary effect of imposing a paperwork burden on the population comparable to that imposed by the (unreformed) federal tax code. There might have been a political crisis, had not the legalization of pharmaceutical imports caused a temporary but noticeable decrease in costs.

President’s McCain’s chief domestic accomplishment was technical and procedural: the Tax Efficiency and Reform Act of 2005. This comprehensive tax-code reform lowered the top marginal individual tax rate to 28%, as well as abolishing the Alternative Minimum Tax; the reform paid for these features by abolishing almost all the deductions in the existing code. The reform was revenue neutral. Small federal budget surpluses had begun to reappear in 2004, the maintenance of which became the Administration’s chief fiscal priority. The reform of the Social Security system disappeared as an issue during the McCain Administration: experience showed that the projected insolvency point for the system retreated by a year for every year the budget balanced or showed a surplus.

Other enthusiasms of President McCain proved less happy. His insistence on a complicated campaign-finance scheme alienated the ad hoc majority in Congress on which he relied for support. The measure was of doubtful constitutionality, and the Administration was probably saved an embarrassment when it failed.

The Administration was not so lucky with an immigration measure that, in effect, granted provisional legal status to everyone in the United States, and this without first ensuring that the federal government had physical control of the borders. The immigration enforcement agencies had to stand down at the borders (including airports) and internally; the chance of apprehending someone whom it might have been proper to detain under the new rules was too small to justify the expense of acting. The immigration bureaucracy was deluged with millions of applications in the space of a few weeks and soon ceased functioning at all. Visas to the United States became unobtainable. Meanwhile, television images showed a steady passage of persons crossing the borders, as well as the appearance of new, impromptu municipalities at the edges of cities and sometimes in public parks. For the most part, these settlements were not, as was incorrectly reported at the time, “colonies” of new immigrants, but associations of longterm undocumented persons who took advantage of the relaxed enforcement regime to move from cramped and often dangerous accommodations. There were notable outbreaks of civil disorder in several places.

The episode lasted a month. The emergency was ended when the president was prevailed upon to invoke the emergency power granted to him in the immigration bill to regulate immigration in extraordinary circumstances. No permanent harm was done, but the country was badly shaken. The president’s speech of apology, in which he took responsibility for the bill and pledged to restore order, was almost unprecedented and highly effective.

One of the ironies of the McCain Administration was that a man so interested in bureaucratic order enhanced his reputation chiefly through his ability to handle unpredictable disasters. The submersion of New Orleans may not, perhaps, quite count as “unpredictable”: few such events have ever been foretold with so much expert specificity so long beforehand. Nonetheless, the event occurred on McCain’s watch, and he understood the importance of what was happening as soon as it was certain the hurricane would make landfall near the city. He ordered his disaster managers and, more important, the Secretary of Defense to the city to monitor events. Before the lower parts of the city were completely flooded, he had invoked questionable but legally colorable authority to use the federal military as rescue forces and police. Perhaps the most famous scene of his presidency occurred the next day when he visited the city, personally “fired” the mayor, and ordered the detention of the entire city police force. His later refusal to sign any reconstruction legislation that applied outside the highland areas of the city remains controversial.

President McCain is remembered for many other things, from his directive to NASA after the Columbia disaster to build an Earth-to-LEO manned spacecraft within a year to the creation of the League of Democracies. He is not always remembered with universal fondness. Nonetheless, his paradoxical presidency did not have the dispiriting effect that several other administrations of the past 50 years had had. His many opponents loved to hate him; his even more numerous admirers were frequently exasperated but never bored. A rare national consensus prevailed as he left office: the Republic had not been altogether badly served. 
    
Copyright 2008 by John J. Reilly

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