Would America have been better off with President McCain?

by Guy Saperstein

As we think ahead toward 2012, ponder this: Consider the possibility that we would be better off if John McCain had won in 2008. Heresy?

Yes, but think about a few important points.

Although TARP was passed during Bush’s Presidency, it really was the beginning of Obama’s term, as it could not have passed without Obama’s strong public support and, indeed, as many books, such as Joseph Stiglitz’ Firefall, have outlined, he was intimately involved in the decisions which led to TARP, particularly the decision to pay Wall Street 100 cents on the dollar for toxic assets at a time when the private market was paying 20 cents, and decisions not to put strings and conditions on the money, such as requiring that 80% of the TARP money be lent out, not used for mergers and acquisitions, which have now enabled even greater concentration in the banking industry, thus putting the economy at even greater risk in the future. Could McCain have done any worse? If TARP had been viewed as a Republican plan all along, wouldn’t the Democrats have been more vigilant in monitoring the giveaways to Wall Street? And, if McCain had been President, there would be no Tea Party today because they would not have arisen in opposition to Republican economic policies.

Healthcare: Obama passed a Republican healthcare plan, one that originated with the Heritage Foundation, and which had the effect of strengthening private insurance companies by adding 30 million new customers for them, without any meaningful cost controls. After running in the primaries against an individual mandate, as President, Obama promoted an individual mandate with no cost controls. It was an insurance industry wet dream, which is why they backed it with a $150 million ad campaign. Yes, it added coverage for millions, but it was a phony reform that will prevent real reform for a generation, or more. Even worse, it will lead to the collapse of the system because the costs–which already are approximately DOUBLE per capita any other healthcare system in the world–are unsustainable. Had McCain been President, no healthcare bill would have been passed, but real reform would have remained on the table for a real Democratic President committed to Democratic Party values who would be willing to create Medicare for All, not shrink Medicare, as Obama did in the Affordable Healthcare Act by taking $500 billion out of it in alleged “savings,” and now by proposing to raise the age of eligibility and/or means-testing. With a Republican President, Democrats would have been more vigilant about protecting Democratic programs. A Democratic Congress would not have let a Republican President damage Medicare.

Afghanistan: After the expensive fiasco in Iraq, would a Republican President have been able to shift from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency and escalate the war in Afghanistan? Maybe, but only over loud objections and close oversight by Congressional Democrats and the public. With Obama, Democratic opposition was muted and the war continues at an increased pace, while Obama privately tries to pressure the Iraqis to keep American troops there, at huge cost to American taxpayers.

One of the major structural impediments to progressive change in America is the $1+ trillion we spend each year on defense, most of it spent counter-productively. McCain might have succeeded in escalating the war in Afghanistan for a short while, but by now opposition in Congress and the country would have become irresistible. More importantly, at a time of calls for austerity and declining expectations, the public is less willing to continue to tolerate the expensive adventures of our military. With McCain at the helm arguing blindly for giving the military everything it wanted, the raw stupidity of the war in Afghanistan the stupidity of spending and trillions on defense would have become apparent to nearly everyone and real changes in defense spending would become possible.

By contrast, with Obama, people gave him a pass on Afghanistan because he had opposed the Iraq war, opposition to the developing fiasco has been muted and there have been no real calls for reductions in defense spending, despite the possibility of reductions everywhere else in the federal budget. Worse, Obama has flat-out lied about defense spending cutbacks, exaggerating $8 billion in projected cuts to future programs into $400 billion in cuts–a 50-1 ratio of deception that would challenge even Bush/Cheney.

What Obama represents is bipartisan support for unconditional defense spending. With McCain as President, if we were talking today about deficit reduction at all, we would be talking seriously about including defense-spending cuts and when we elected a new Democratic President in 2016, there would be a far greater chance that we would legislate a new approach to security and a much-reduced defense budget.

Bush Tax Cuts: There is no possible way McCain would have been able to continue the Bush tax cuts for the rich. That would have been the defining issue between Dems and Reps, the Dems would have been united in opposition, and tax cuts for the rich would not have passed. The idea of fairness and progressive taxation would have been promoted, not undermined. But by dividing Democrats and legislating with Republicans, Obama accomplished something no Republican President would have been able to do–and we are now paying the price in Obama’s call for “deficit-reduction,” partly to make up the deficits caused by his tax revenue giveaways [including $282 billion of tax cuts in the stimulus bill].

Deficit Reduction: It now appears Obama is the one pushing for deficit-reduction in the current debt limit negotiations, not the Republicans. He’s the deficit hawk; could McCain have been worse? Well, for starters, with McCain as President, we never would be in debt-limit negotiations at all, as McCain would have moved to raise the limit, just as every Rep president before him, and the Dems would not have objected. And if McCain had tried to cut entitlements, like Obama is willing to do, Democrats would have howled in outrage and been united in opposition.

To recall some recent history, Bush tried for eight years to alter Social Security, Pelosi put up a good defense, and Bush failed. But in less than three years, Obama voluntarily has put Social Security [and Medicare] in more serious jeopardy than Bush, or any Republican President, ever managed to do. This is the lesson: On a variety of issues, Obama has been worse than a Republican because by dividing the Dems and pursuing Rep policies with Republican votes, he is capable of doing more damage to progressive values and legislation than the Reps can do on their own.

The Economy: If McCain were President, he and the Reps would be getting blamed for economic stagnation; the emptiness of GOP economic theories would be plain to all. With Obama, we got a timid effort at Keynesian stimulus, followed by his unexplained pivot to Republican economic theories–such as the need for deficit reduction in the middle of a recession. Obama has been so weak and conciliatory toward Reps, Democratic economic theories never really were tried. The economy will almost certainly go deeper into recession and Democrats will be blamed, so we get the worst of two worlds–Republican economic theories [promoted by a Democratic President] and blame for the Democrats.

I could add many other issues where Obama acted as the Trojan Horse for Republican policies, but I think my point is clear: Obama is not governing as a Democrat, or with the Democratic Party. In fact, on issues such as Afghanistan funding, tax cuts for the rich, the bad February budget give-backs, he couldn’t carry a majority of Democrats. Obama has divided the Democratic Party and governed with Rep votes.

With McCain as President and the continuing lack of job creation, the Dems would have kept the House, not lost seats in the Senate, and the would probably have strengthened their numbers in both houses. Today, there would be a full-throated opposition, hammering at McCain’s economic failures and articulating an alternative vision of job creation. Instead, we have a DINO President espousing Republican economic theories with the Reps pushing the debate farther and farther to the right. Dems are not in the game; we have no voice in the national economic debate; Obama has defanged the Dems, divided them, made them voiceless–as the economy melts. You want four more years of this? You want to dig a deeper hole? Then re-elect Obama.

With austerity, we can safely predict the economy will stagnate and slide backwards. The Fed will do everything it can to prop up the economy and help Obama’s re-election between now and Nov 2012, but they will exhaust their tricks by then and 2013-16 is likely to be very grim. I want the Reps to take the fall for that, not my party. I also don’t want four more years of a DINO President intent on showing his independence by hollowing out Democratic Party achievements. Five and a half more years of what we’ve seen from Obama for the last two and a half years and you can pretty much forget about the Democratic Party and Democratic Party programs.

Some of you may argue that there will be one or more Supreme Court appointments in the next term. That is not insignificant, of course, but consider this: There is almost no chance any of the five Reps in the majority will retire in the next term; they are all either relatively young and/or healthy and none have made any indications they intend to leave, let alone leave an appointment to a Dem President. So there is no real chance that giving Obama a second term would fundamentally change the Supreme Court. The most likely next appointment will be to replace Ginsburg, who is not healthy, but replacing her with a Republican Justice doesn’t change much, it just means more 6-3, instead of 5-4, votes. Is that enough of a consideration to override the many reasons why we should not want second term for a DINO who is melting down the Democratic Party and Democratic values? I don’t think so.

The core question is, do we want to limp along defending a failed President who has no allegiance to progressive values or Democratic Party achievements and then get blamed for the next 20 years for the economic non-recovery? Or do we want to get into oppositional mode and build a real progressive movement from the ground up in the expectation that a Republican Presidency in 2013-16 will fail, that Democrats will win back the Presidency in 2016 and not blow their opportunity a second time with a weak President, and that real change will become possible. Based on past performance with Obama, we can expect him to continue digging a hole for Democrats; giving him four more years most likely would mean the hole would be too deep to climb out of. It is time for progressives to let Republicans take responsibility for digging that hole while we create an alternative.

I, for one, vote for the long-term future, not unconditional support for a very weak President who has proved both incompetent and uncourageous on every single issue he has faced.


Guy T. Saperstein graduated law school (UC Berkeley) in 1969, received a poverty law fellowship and represented migrant farmworkers in Colorado; in 1972, he founded a law firm in Oakland which became the largest plaintiffs civil rights law firm in America, in the process successfully prosecuting the largest race, sex and age discrimination class actions in American history. Guy also prosecuted False Claims Act cases against Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. regarding satellite surveillance systems, and against Raytheon, Boeing and TRW regarding the sham National Missile Defense Program. From 1994-2000, Guy was included in the National Law Journal’s list of “The 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America.”

Guy was President of The Sierra Club Foundation 2004-6 and currently sits on the board of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. In 2003, his memoirs, Civil Warrior: Memoirs of a Civil Rights Attorney, were published, and in April 2005, RDR Books published The Getaway Guide to the John Muir Trail, Guy’s story of backpacking the 236-mile John Muir Trail with his youngest son. More…

13 replies »

  1. I voted for President Obama. I did so with hope that reality would support his rhetoric. Increasingly, issue after issue, I have felt deceived. Caveat emptor.

    But I’m not ready to hand over the reins to Mitt for four years — yet. Obama has about one year to demonstrate convincingly that he can push progressive programs successfully. But I don’t think he can.

    Thanks, Guy. A superb analysis.

    • Like Denny, I’m not past the point of no return. Obama has a little over a year before the election and there are things he can do to change my mind.

      But if the election were held today I’d vote for whoever is on the Green ticket.

  2. On the healthcare thing – if having both wasn’t politically possible, would it be more progressive to cover 30 million people at high cost or lower costs but not cover those 30 million people? Both would have been the ideal, obviously, but I’m personally more for covering people than lowering costs. Not that Obama pushed for the ideal, which is what he should have done and what many people thought they were voting for in 2008.

    • Brian, the plan didn’t cover 30M more people. It required that 30M more people buy coverage at whatever price the insurance companies decided to charge.

  3. I have to admit that this is one of those areas where my brand of pragmatism has some challenges. I tend to aim for the the greatest benefit for the largest number of people while simultaneously aiming for the fewest drawbacks affecting the fewest people. Or, using simpler, geekier language, “The needs of the few outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”

    Using this logic, however, is it better to force people to buy insurance that they may or may not be able to afford if it saves money for the large number of people currently paying through the nose for their uninsured medical expenses? Tough question, frankly, and one I don’t have all the data I’d like to have before deciding.

    But what data I do have suggests that the system will be better off with the individual mandate and 30 million more folks being forced to buy insurance they might not otherwise be able to or have wanted to buy. One of the biggest indicators of overall health is regular access to a physician, so much so that medical studies have to eliminate the impact of regular preventive care before they can see the impact of the treatments being studied.

    I think that the jury’s still out on the healthcare issue at this point, and probably will be until a few years after it’s fully implemented in 2014. Assuming it doesn’t get messed with dramatically by then, of course.

  4. You have four choices when voting:

    1. Vote Democratic and continue conservative policy;

    2. Vote third-party, taking votes away from Dems and helping to elect Republicans;

    3. Don’t vote, decreasing voter turnout and helping to elect Republicans;

    4. Vote Republican and continue conservative policy.

    This is a social engineering triumph.

    The only effect a liberal can have is to vote Republican – throw the faux-Dems out, conservative policy will then crash & burn (eg: 1929, 2008) and then rebuild from the ashes.

    As for TARP, McCain originally opposed it, he lead in the polls one week prior to the September 2008 financial meltdown and he would have won had he maintained his opposition to TARP.

    As for healthcare, Obama could have told the private insurance industry that they had two more years to get everyone insured at the lowest per capita cost & highest life expectancy in the developed world otherwise medicare-for-all would kick in. Surely American private industry could accomplish the same thing “socialist” France has!

  5. I don’t beleive that it really matters on voting. I think both parties is as bad the other. I voted for Obama but will not vote again. Unless I see real hope and change coming, I will not vote period and a lot of people feel as I do cause I have read the blogs. Obama will not be able to turn out his base in 2012 because so many feeled betrayed by him and so many say he is a Republican so by voting, you would feel you were voting Republican no matter how you voted so its a no win situation. Unless somebody steps in and challenges Obama fron the left, the democratic party is history!

  6. I agree with the essay. Let me add one other point. McCain was better than Obama on Civil Liberties. Yup, that’s right, Mr. Obama has taken every precedent Mr. Bush established and doubled them.


  7. Great post! I disagree only with the healthcare analysis. You said “Had McCain been President, no healthcare bill would have been passed, but real reform would have remained on the table for a real Democratic President committed to Democratic Party values who would be willing to create Medicare for All”

    That’s not what would have happened. What would have happened is that the next Dem President would have tried some middle of the road permutation of what Obama gave us.

    Medicare For All, henceforth, because of Obama’s spectacular sell out, is going to be the only acceptable position for a Democratic primary voter. So I actually thank Obama for speeding up Medicare For All by proving that there really isn’t a way to fix this health care system without crushing this filthy insurance industry.

  8. Short-term thinking. Would McCain have appointed anyone like Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan? Or would he have appointed another Scalia clone? One thing’s for relatively certain: The spineless DINOs in the Senate would not have had any qualms about confirming Attila the Hun, had he been proffered.

  9. Thanks for this!

    Sadly there is yet another reason not to support Obama in 2012 – its the game played by Dem Elites called “lesser of two evils”. It’s an old game perfected by the DLC, New Dems & Third Way folks that says to progressive – we know this guy is a corporate pig but he’s better than the opposition. Today the Obama folks are desperately waiting to see if it will work yet again. They are hoping against hope that a Bachmann or Perry candidacy will cause us run back to the fold, bend over and take it.

    Until we prove to them, the DC Dem elites, that their dog won’t hunt anymore we are nothing but their doormat. As I see it I have no choice but to work for a Green during the next cycle and let the card fall as they may –

    Right now my guess is that we are heading for a Perry Presidency – we have no choice but to stock up on our pharmacuticals and popcorn and watch the trailer trash theather unfold.

  10. This gives too much credit to congressional Democrats, especially in Senate. I was thinking about this the other day, and I thought to myself, if McCain were president, we’d have troops in Iran right now, and we’d be listening to scumbags saying, “No one predicted the Iranian people would fight back. Everyone agreed that Iran was near to producing a nuclear weapon.”