Alternate Elections: Presidential Assassinations, Impeachments, and Comebacks That Could Have Changed the Past Eight Years
By Edward Guimont
I’m sure many of the people who frequent this site are familiar with the anthology Alternate Presidents, which depicts a number of people becoming President of the United States who never had the opportunity in the real world. It features such scenarios as Ben Franklin becoming the first President and ushering in a more democratic society; Aaron Burr becoming President and ushering in a Bonapartist dictatorship; or Dukakis becoming President only to be revealed as being an alien infiltrator.
As I write this, there is less than one month before the 2008 election in which George W. Bush’s successor will be chosen. Whether you support Bush or not, his presidency – the 2000 election, 9/11, Afghanistan War, PATRIOT Act, sweeping tax cuts, Iraq War, Supreme Court nominations, Hurricane Katrina, 2006 Congressional reversals, and the financial meltdown – will likely be seen as one of the most controversial and far-reaching for a long time. Similarly, whether you support Obama or McCain (or neither), when one of them takes the Oath of Office in January 20, 2009, not only will a major era in US politics come to a close, either candidate will be dealing with Bush’s legacies – the two wars and the economy in particular – for years to come.
Obviously, it’s too soon to look back at Bush’s years and see the long-term implications (although, going out on a limb, I don’t think anyone soon will be saying he was one of the greats). However, in the spirit of the election season and of Alternate Presidents, I offer a small selection of several ways the past eight years could have gone differently, mainly with Bush but with a few of his potential successors as well. In chronological order of the point of departure:
Scenario 1: February 19, 2000: No Black Baby for John McCain:
The South Carolina Republican primary for the 2000 election was when many people realized that it was going to be a messy campaign. John McCain, the only other serious Republican nominee, had won the New Hampshire primary on February 1 with nineteen points over Bush. Polls gave McCain a five-point lead in South Carolina. The Bush campaign embarked on a massive PR blitz, including a number of dirty tactics, the most famous of which was the claim that McCain had fathered a black baby out of wedlock. McCain was limited by public funding in his campaigns; Bush was not. Additionally, in the face of this, McCain tried to stress the positive aspects of his campaign; by withdrawing his negative ads against Bush and with many seeing him as failing to stand up to himself, he lost even more of his edge. Bush eventually won South Carolina with 11 points over McCain. Although McCain won a number of other primaries, they were largely in states considered ‘liberal’ or where Democrats and independents were able to participate in the Republican primaries. McCain dropped out on March 9, two days after doing dismally in the ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries.
Many saw McCain as the frontrunner of the Republican primaries in 2000, and it is widely accepted that his defeat in South Carolina crippled the rest of his campaign. If McCain won – whether by a lack of Bush’s more controversial tactics, or by fighting back stronger – it is conceivable that he could have gone on to become the Republican nominee. Assuming that nothing else was affected, this would have McCain going up against Al Gore and (ironically) Joe Lieberman in 2000. I have no idea who McCain might have chose as his running mate; Lamar Alexander, senator and former governor of Tennessee (and brief participant in the 2000 Republican primary cycle) and Bob Dole are the only possibilities I can think of off the top of my head. I also have no idea how McCain might have done against Gore, but for the sake of the argument, let’s have the McCain-Alexander ticket winning the White House (and without the drama of the actual 2000 election).
First off, there would certainly be no Bush-style tax cuts. The economy would probably do marginally better. I could still see the invasion of Iraq occurring as a response to 9/11, but if so, there would likely be more international cooperation, and the postwar reconstruction would likely go smoother – McCain would almost certainly be more willing to listen to the suggestions of generals like Eric Shinseki or Anthony Zinni than Bush was. Whether their plans would work in helping establish a (relatively) secure and stable Iraq by 2004, when McCain would be up for re-election – who knows?
Scenario 2: December 12, 2000: President Gore:
Probably the most obvious POD for a Bush presidency would be Gore winning. There are several ways this could have happened. Ralph Nader could have not been in the race, which would have caused New Hampshire to almost certainly go to Gore (who lost the state by only 1%), which would have let him win regardless of what happened to Florida. Gore was also within 3% of winning in Nevada, Ohio, Missouri, and his native Tennessee – either of which would have let him win without Florida. And even having just a few dozen more Gore supporters in Florida, or a less-confusing ballot, or the Supreme Court in its December 12 ruling allowing the recount to continue would have allowed Gore to win. With the recount trends as they were, it was almost certain that Gore would have won if they had been carried out fully.
Therefore, on January 20, 2001, Al Gore would be inaugurated as President, with Joe Lieberman as his VP. However, the joy would be short lived. After 9/11, there is no way that a Democratic administration – especially one so associated with Clinton’s, which had the USS Cole bombing, 1998 embassy bombings, Waco siege, and 1993 World Trade Center attack – would have escaped huge volumes of attack from the Republican Party. Even if Gore did invade Afghanistan (which would almost have certainly still happened) no doubt there would be those casting their eyes on Iraq (which almost certainly would not be invaded). The Republicans would pick up their Congressional seats in the 2002 midterms, as well as more seats in 2004, where the Republican challenger – McCain, likely – would probably win. What McCain would do next, I’m even less sure of – inaugurated in 2005, would he still be looking to invade Iraq for its alleged role in 9/11? It all depends on how insistent the Republicans had been at linking Iraq with 9/11 and the international climate at the time.
Scenario 3: February 7, 2001: Death of a President:
A number of you have probably heard about the film Death of a President. Released in 2006, it was set in 2007, where Bush was assassinated, allegedly by a member of al-Qaeda. The movie was widely condemned; however, it was not drawn entirely out of thin air. Bush has had two assassination attempts made on him.
The first was on February 7, 2001. An emotionally unstable man named Robert Pickett began firing his handgun towards the White House (where Bush was at the time) from outside the White House perimeter (as far as I remember, I don’t think Pickett was even trying to shoot Bush, just vent his frustration at the symbol of the federal government). It was somewhat unlikely a mere handgun could have shot a bullet to actually hit the White House due to the large number of trees in the way, and even less of a chance it might have been possible for him to hit Bush with a bullet. But if it had happened despite the huge odds against it, Dick Cheney would have become President less than a month after becoming Vice President.
I know a number of people who describe themselves as Republicans or conservatives for whom the phrase "President Dick Cheney" sends shivers up their spines. In this scenario, it really would be President Cheney, with Bush being nothing more than a brief historical footnote. Perhaps it’s a measure of how cynical I am, but I don’t see a Cheney presidency being greatly different than a Bush-Cheney presidency. Perhaps he might lose a few bills due to a lack of charisma and personal connections that Bush has among Republican legislators who were hesitant to pass certain bills he supported.
I do think that if Cheney became President in 2000, he would not run for re-election. For one, his health problems make worries over John McCain’s age in this election seem like peanuts. Then, there is also the fact that to many people, he’s seen as being even worse than Bush – if even people in his own party see him as a scheming manipulator with negative charisma and who makes the room go dark when he enters, it would not be good for the party. I’d bet that McCain, again, would become the Republican nominee; however, after four years of Cheney, I think there would be a tossup between a Republican and Democrat succeeding him.
Scenario 4: September 11, 2001: No 9/11:
I think it’s fair to say that 9/11 made Bush, and it is the thing that his presidency will be most remembered and defined by. People from both parties agree that the attacks changed the fundamentals of his presidency. Without becoming too controversial or partisan, I think it would be fair to say that without 9/11, Bush would have an uphill struggle to make an image of himself as an effective, hard-working, serious Presidential figure.
Personally, I think there is still a decent chance that even without 9/11, Bush would have attempted to invade Iraq. Without the terrorist attacks to give him extra patriotic points, it would be a much harder sell, and when things started to go bad, it would bite him even harder. But on the other hand, there would not be things like the PATRIOT Act or Guantanamo to make liberals vilify him even more. Combined with the massive tax cuts, and his pre-9/11 image of being more interested in playing golf and clearing brush at Crawford, I think a no-9/11 Bush would lose re-election to any Democrat who went against him.
Scenario 5: January 13, 2002: The Pretzel Wins:
It’s an event that has become intimately associated with Bush and how many perceive him. On January 13, 2002, while watching the Baltimore Ravens play the Miami Dolphins, Bush choked on a pretzel he was eating. Alone in the room, he fell off of his couch and onto the floor, and even lost consciousness. He apparently awoke to find his dogs staring at him. In this scenario, he doesn’t work at all.
This is similar to the scenario where Bush is assassinated in February 2001, save that when Cheney inherits the presidency, 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan have already happened, the Iraq war planning is under way, and Bush has already become a national hero from 9/11. I think the war will go ahead, and the Republicans will still pick up seats in the 2002 midterms, but if anything, Bush’s stature means that Cheney is contrasted that much more harshly against his predecessor, even by his own party (ironically, this would probably have Bush remembered in a much rosier light than he probably ever would be today – the ‘uniter, not divider’ and hero of 9/11 still untarnished by most of his major ideological battles and blunders). Cheney still doesn’t run for re-election in 2004, but I think it’s a bit harder for the Democratic candidate to win.
Scenario 6: January 19, 2004: Dean Scream:
Speaking of the 2004 Democratic candidate, for a long time in 2003 and early 2004, Howard Dean was seen to be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and even the presidency. This continued until just days before the primary season began with the January 19 Iowa caucuses, when negative ads between Dean and Dick Gephardt (a rival candidate from next-door Missouri) resulted in a surprise tumble. Dean came in third behind John Kerry and John Edwards. That evening, the news played the infamous ‘Dean Scream:’ an enthusiastic pep-talk to his campaign where Dean yelled out how his campaign was not over yet, and he was doing better than they thought they would a year earlier. The ‘liberal media’ went wild and for the next week or so, just about every news and talk show were saturated with it. Some less reputable news sources (Fox News, I’m looking at you) even portrayed it as a mental breakdown or sign of instability. Several days later, The New York Times ran an article which included a comment from a senior Dean campaign member that seemed to imply that Dean was dropping out. Dean never recovered. He only won a single primary: that of his home state, Vermont…which occurred two weeks after he dropped out of the race.
Now, if Dean managed to win Iowa, neither the ‘scream’ nor the defeatist comments would have surfaced, his campaign would not have floundered, and Kerry and Edwards’ campaign would not have picked up their super-momentum. It seems possible that he could have still managed to make it through to the end and become the candidate. If he did, I definitely think he would have won the election. Any Democrat this side of a dead fish should have won against Bush in 2004 (the next scenario envisions the dead fish who was the actual candidate winning against Bush). Many commentators depicted Dean as an anti-war radical, but in this case, I think their smears might have actually helped him. I generally am not good at picking running mates, but in this case, I will go out on a limb: Wesley Clarke, the former NATO commander who supervised the Kosovo war and also ran in the 2004 primaries (and won Oklahoma, which means he got more delegates than Dean in reality). He would be the perfect counterbalance to the Republican cry of Dean’s ‘radicalism.’
Of course, things would not be easy with Dean. With the added momentum of him, the Republicans might not have picked up as many Congressional seats as they did in 2004, but I bet they would have still increased their majority overall, which means that his universal healthcare dream probably would not occur. However, we might have seen a total withdrawal from Iraq by this point. As to the other trials and tribulations that could have awaited President Dean, most will be covered in the next scenario anyways, so let’s just move on there…
Scenario 7: November 4, 2004: President Kerry:
What many people don’t realize due to his widely caricatured views as a flip-flopping, long-winded elitist is that John Kerry got more votes than any other American candidate in history – save for Bush in 2004, of course. The popular vote was very close – Bush’s 50.7% to Kerry’s 48.3%. And Ohio, the state which decided the election in the end, was won by Bush with only around 2% of the vote; Kerry also lost Nevada, Iowa, and New Mexico by 2% or less. Therefore, a Kerry victory in 2004 was not as far-fetched as many future people will likely assume.
However, Kerry as President would have faced a lot of problems. He would have been saddled with a Congress that was still largely Republican (which would have made implementing his healthcare policies almost impossible), and would have been President when Katrina and the financial meltdown occurred. It’s possible that Kerry’s policies might have helped reduced their impact, but they still would have been major issues that happened under his watch. There probably would not have been a full withdraw from Iraq under Kerry, but the troop levels would likely have gone down; of course, a continuing presence with low troop numbers might have made an Iraq even worse than in reality. Combined with his difficult to connect to personality, his 2004 reelection would probably be difficult to pull off, especially if he was challenged in the primaries by a more liberal candidate (probably not Dean, assuming he still becomes Chairman of the Democratic National Committee).
On the plus side, he would have been able to nominate the Chief Justice after William Rehnquist’s death (Sandra Day O’Conner had stated that she would not have retired under a Democrat).
Scenario 8: May 10, 2005: A Peachy Situation in Georgia:
The second assassination attempt against Bush took place in the country of Georgia on May 10, 2005. Bush was in the Georgian capitol Tbilsi, making a public appearance with the country’s new president, Mikhail Saakashvili, who had just overcome the country’s autocratic former president in the ‘Rose Revolution.’ A Georgian of Armenian ethnicity, Vladimir Arutyunian, threw a hand grenade towards where the two presidents, their wives, and other officials were seated. The hand grenade landed over sixty feet away, but did not detonate anyways, due to being wrapped in a handkerchief (I assume to hide it).
Let’s assume that Arutyunian’s aim is better, the handkerchief did not get tangled with it, and at a minimum, Bush is killed. Once more, Cheney is President. The main difference here as compared to those other scenarios is that Cheney will be the one to make the two Supreme Court nominations, although I don’t think they would differ from Bush’s all that much. He also would be the President who would decide whether or not to make the ‘surge’ in Iraq, and would be the President who oversaw the Democrats sweeping up in 2006. He would also be President when Katrina happened and the economy melted down. Combined, that means he is going to be hated even more (even by his own party) and absolutely will not be running for re-election. In fact, in this scenario, I would be worried about an eventual assassin heading out for him.
As a bit of a tangent, if in this scenario Saakashvili is also assassinated, the past few months (August 2008-to as I write this in October) would be going rather differently in the Caucasus. It’s possible that Georgia would not have invaded South Ossetia, leading to this crisis, leading to a more comfortable life for Vladimir Putin (although all evidence seems to point that he is rather fond of Bush, certainly more so than he is of McCain).
Scenario 9: June 16, 2005: Impeachment:
There has been talk about impeaching Bush since he was elected to office. But as far as I know, the first time any sort of official discussion on it was held wasn’t until June 16, 2005, when Democratic Congressman John Conyers began discussing it. He created a formal filing for impeachment and got 38 Congressional co-sponsors, but the move expired when Congress adjourned prior to the 2006 midterm elections. As far as I know, the only other official moves to impeach have both come from Dennis Kucinich: one (November 6, 2007) to impeach Cheney, the other (June 9, 2008) against Bush. While I believe both are still officially on the table and on the committee queue, in reality it’s obvious that nothing is going to happen.
However, what if they did? If just Bush was removed, then it would merely be similar to Scenario 8 with a Cheney presidency in 2005. However, if both Bush and Cheney were impeached, then there are two options. If it is done before the 2006 midterms, then Dennis Hastert (the Republican Speaker of the House prior to the start of the 2007 legislative session) will become the new President. Seeing as he resigned his own Congressional seat halfway through the next election, I think there is at least a small chance he might have resigned his Presidency; if he didn’t, then he would certainly not run for re-election.
If the mutual impeachment is done after the 2007 session of Congress opens, then Nancy Pelosi would become the first female President of the United States. I imagine her rise would cause controversy – a Republican administration won in 2004, yet she is a Democrat (a similar crisis began to brew when it looked as if Nixon might be impeached while a Democrat was Speaker of the House). It also might have had an impact on Hillary Clinton’s run for the Presidency, though I’m not sure for the negative or positive –she would not get to be the first female President, but rather the first elected female President. However, in any case, I doubt that Pelosi would run for re-election to the Presidency either, although an eventual run for Governor of California in 2010 might be an option for a former Speaker of the House and President.
Scenario 10: March 4, 2008: The Man from Hope:
In 1992, one of Bill Clinton’s slogans was that he was ‘The Man from Hope’, having been born in Hope, Arkansas. But few know that there was another Man from Hope in the 2008 race for President, who also had been Governor of Arkansas – and that was Mike Huckabee. And, for a while, it looked as if he might have been the front-runner, until in a replay of the 2000 Republican primaries, he lost that title to the underdog candidate in the South Carolina primary – ironically, John McCain.
John McCain ended up wining the 2008 primaries in a landslide. However, Huckabee ended up making some large strides. Even after there was almost no chance of him winning, he still came within one percent of winning Missouri and a few percentage points of winning Oklahoma and Virginia, major prize and whose capture could have delayed McCain’s final victory for a few weeks at the least. Even in Texas, after he was the clear winner, McCain barely got 50% of the votes, while Huckabee got over one third.
There are also a number of states (including delegate-rich Florida, and to a lesser extent, California) where Mitt Romney lost out to McCain by only a few percentage points. When Romney did eventually drop out, he endorsed McCain over Huckabee. It is not difficult to envision a scenario where Huckabee and Romney gained those few extra victories over McCain and made a pact with each other. In fact, a Huckabee-Romney ticket would be a strong counterbalance: one a southern, born-again populist; the other a northern moderate. In both this and the last scenario, I won’t speculate who will win the 2008 election, but I think a Huckabee-Romney ticket would be at least as strong (and, dare I say it, probably stronger) than McCain-Palin has proven to be.
Scenario 11: June 3, 2008: Clinton II:
Hillary Clinton defeats Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries. There are so many ways this could have happened, I don’t think I even need to go over them. Suffice it to say, one of them could have edged over a few percentage points more or less in any number of primaries (although as the Democrats do not use a winner-take-all system like the Republicans, this wouldn’t have mattered as much as in Scenario 10), or said something that had an extra resonance, or gotten a certain endorsement sooner rather than later.
In any case, Hillary is the nominee. However, she would still need Obama and his fundraising magic to help her and the party out, especially given how much in debt she went with her primary campaign. As I recall, polls of Democratic voters said that Obama supporters were more likely to go over to Hillary if she won than vice-versa, although clearly that has happened to a large extent anyways. I don’t think Obama would be her vice presidential choice, however. Wesley Clarke would be a tempting choice to go up against McCain’s military credentials; however, an Arkansas native who served under Bill Clinton and supported her during the campaign would not help unify the party. Like Obama, I’m willing to bet she would have most likely chosen a white male – Evan Bayh or Tim Kaine, perhaps, although Bill Richardson could also have been there to (I might as well be blunt) satisfy minority voters; however, Clinton already had a large percentage of Hispanic votes, and there is no evidence he might have done anything to attract the black voters who supported Obama over 90%.
In response, McCain would have had several possibilities for his vice presidential pick. Palin would still help him attract women voters who otherwise might have gone over to Hillary for the novelty of voting for a woman President. Alternately, he could have chosen Olympia Snowe, Christine Todd Whitman, or Mary Landrieu, more moderate Republicans who could have helped draw over Democratic-minded women (like Palin, Whitman would also bring former executive experience); or even Joe Lieberman (who reputedly was his personal choice in real life, despite the objections of his advisors) to help draw over moderate Democrats.
His final choice option would be to do the mirror of what he did in real life: Palin was chosen to draw over female voters angry with Hillary’s loss in the Democratic Party (as well as satisfy social conservatives); in this timeline, he could have chosen a minority candidate to draw over minority voters upset over Obama’s loss. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana was reportedly on McCain’s short list in real life; Condoleezza Rice or (perhaps slightly more likely) Colin Powell would also be options. Condi would help draw over women also, and is somewhat more conservative; Powell has a reputation for being more moderate, and it is reasonably well known at this point that he had at least a minor split with Bush over Iraq. However, both would still be visible symbols of a continuity of the Bush administration, something McCain has gone to almost comical lengths to get away from. And, for a long shot candidate, there is always Alan Keyes.
Scenario 12: August 8, 2008: An Affair to Remember:
This final scenario is something of a bonus. By some miracle, John Edwards made his big comeback and secured the Democratic nomination for President. Then, on August 8 – two and a half weeks before the Democratic National Convention – it is revealed that he engaged in an extramarital affair, with rumors of him fathering a child out of wedlock. He drops out of the candidacy, leaving the DNC scrambling to come up with a candidate. 1968 looks like a picnic, and McCain – or whoever the Republicans chose – ends up with a stroll to the White House.
In the history of the American Presidency, stranger things have happened.
I’m Edward Guimont and I approve this message.