We now head into what Andrew Sullivan calls Hell week, when the Supreme Court decides whether and how much of Obamacare to strike down, and Greece decides whether to keep suffering the endless grind, or to leap off the cliff and hope for the best. Looking at today's grim state of affairs, it is fair to ask, would we be better off if McCain had won in 2008? I will break this down into several sections:
Partisan politics: Republicans would be less insane and less obstructionist if McCain had won. In the end, though, I can't endorse that as a reason to have voted for him. That is submitting to blackmail by the Republicans -- elect us or we make the country ungovernable. If American democracy is to keep its health, we can't let them get away with that.
War on terror: I have no doubt that if McCain had won, he would have ended the (official) practice of torture, just as Obama did. The issue is just too personal for him, and no one could call his patriotism into question over it. Likewise, I may be mistaken, but I think he would have made some effort to close Guantanamo and give terrorists some sort of reasonable trial. Unlike Obama, his patriotism and commitment to fight terrorism would not have been subject to question or the sort of hysteria that has greeted any attempt by Obama to recognize terrorism suspect as having even minimal human rights. Whether he would have moved to roll back any of the more troubling domestic surveillance programs is anybody's guess. My guess would be no. But even at his best, McCain would undoubtedly have done less than people like me would wish. And we would cherish the illusion that Obama would have done better. Now we know.
The economy: This is the one reelection hinges on. My guess is that McCain would have run up just as large deficits as Obama, but they would have been caused by tax cuts (mostly at the top) and not by spending increases. He might have cut spending, but probably not by much. I have no idea whether he would have instituted any sort of bank reform. Maybe, to burnish his bipartisan credentials. But by and large, I would guess the economy would be doing about the same under McCain as Obama.
Domestic policies: McCain would not have passed any sort of universal health care. But then again, either the Supreme Court or next year's Republican majority is about to take back the reform that Obama got through. They have made it their first priority. And my guess is that Republicans want to make the whole topic so toxic that Democrats will NEVER TOUCH IT AGAIN, EVER. Keeping a large uninsured population is apparently a high priority for them. If McCain had won, at least the topic would not be too toxic to address next time a Democrat won. I doubt very much whether McCain would have gotten anything done on immigration or global warming. He has shown interest in the topics in the past, and many Democrats would like to work with him on it, but the Republican base would just be too hostile to let it happen.
Foreign policy: This is the scary place. Who knows what McCain would have done in office next time an opportunity to start a war began. Would he have kept troops in Iraq against the wishes of the Iraqi government? Intervened on behalf of the Syrian rebels (with the Russians intervening on behalf of the government)? Bombed Iran? Made some sort of direct intervention democracy activists began demonstrating? Who knows what he would have done.
My conclusion, then is that a McCain presidency would not have been all that different than the Obama presidency has turned out. McCain would probably have had more space to reverse at least some of Bush's worst War on Terror policies. On the other hand, he would have been more likely to start another war. In the interest of avoiding a war, I will give the edge to Obama.