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Saturday, September 09, 2006
I was watching a 9/11 documentary this evening and I began to wonder how life in the United States would be different today if Al Gore had won the 2000 Presidential election. Since I couldn't put it together in my head, I started writing it down as a short essay. Here is my best guess about what would be different if a few thousand voters had punched a different chad that night in Florida. What if Al Gore had won the 2000 election? Some people will take offense at this title, arguing that Al Gore really did win the 2000 election but had it stolen from him. However, Al Gore lost the 2000 Presidential election under U.S. law. Even if one of the Supreme Court justices had flipped his or her vote and Al Gore had won the right to a recount, he still would have lost the election. We know this because post-election analysis of the ballots revealed that the recount rules ordered by the Florida Supreme Court (the ones that Gore requested) would have still left him short of a majority in Florida. But what if he had picked up another few thousand votes in Florida on Election Day, enough to prevent the inevitable Bush-led recount from preventing his victory? On the economic front, nothing could prevent the recession of 2001-2002. President Gore would probably have proposed a targeted tax cut to put some of the surplus into people’s hands. He probably would have had to accept some tax breaks for the rich in order to pass his proposal through a Republican-controlled Congress. He also would have proposed an increase in defense spending (as he promised during the election). Between them, these factors (recession, defense spending, and modest tax cuts) would have eaten up the budget surplus and probably generated a small deficit, garnering criticism from McCain and other “deficit hawks” in the Republican Congress. President Gore would have continued Bill Clinton’s policies toward al-Qaeda. That is, he would have continued to search for ways to eliminate Osama bin Laden and retaliate for the USS Cole bombing several months earlier. We now have an outline for the Clinton Administration’s proposed plan of action, presented to Condoleeza Rice by Richard Clarke during the transition period. Time magazine says, “Clarke's proposals called for the ‘breakup’ of al-Qaeda cells and the arrest of their personnel. The financial support for its terrorist activities would be systematically attacked, its assets frozen, its funding from fake charities stopped. Nations where al-Qaeda was causing trouble—Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Yemen—would be given aid to fight the terrorists. Most important, Clarke wanted to see a dramatic increase in covert action in Afghanistan to ‘eliminate the sanctuary’ where al-Qaeda had its terrorist training camps and bin Laden was being protected by the radical Islamic Taliban regime… Clarke supported a substantial increase in American support for the Northern Alliance, the last remaining resistance to the Taliban. That way, terrorists graduating from the training camps would have been forced to stay in Afghanistan, fighting (and dying) for the Taliban on the front lines. At the same time, the U.S. military would start planning for air strikes on the camps and for the introduction of special-operations forces into Afghanistan. The plan was estimated to cost ‘several hundreds of millions of dollars.’” Suppose this plan had been approved and implemented (with President-elect Gore’s consent) in November 2000. It seems clear that the United States would have gotten a head start in its campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance would have been stronger within a few months, bolstered by the knowledge that supplies used in offensive operations would be replaced by the United States. It is even possible that the insertion of special forces teams might have stopped the assassination of Massoud, the closest thing to an Afghan patriot to emerge from the Afghan civil war. Perhaps Massoud would have been able to conquer the Taliban and bring some stability to Afghanistan, although I doubt this would have been possible without a much larger commitment of US resources. “Hundreds of millions of dollars” is chump change when it comes to warfighting. Would the plan have prevented 9/11? This is hard to know. The odds of preventing the attack at that late date were still pretty low, even if the financial network had been disrupted and lines of command had been severed. Moreover, the comparison will always be a bit unfair to Bush, since we know from hindsight that the probability of 9/11 attacks under Bush was 100% -- this means that anything less than 100% certainty of the attacks under Gore means we would have been better off under Gore. Unfair or not, there was some probability the attacks would have been prevented, that a massive manhunt for al Qaeda agents might have turned up evidence of the 9/11 plot before it could be executed. Given the available evidence, I think the 9/11 attacks would still have occurred under President Gore. I also think that Gore’s response would have been very similar to Bush’s initial response – an ultimatum to the Taliban followed by an invasion of Afghanistan. Only at the end of 2001 do the historical paths begin to diverge. This was the time when Bush was planning an invasion of Iraq. President Gore would have continued to press the campaign against al Qaeda. This means that Saudi officials linked to the group might not have been permitted to leave the United States. It also means that US relations with Pakistan would probably have soured quickly, as American special forces teams essentially invaded Pakistan in search of Osama bin Laden. In other words, where Bush decided to focus on Iraq, Al Gore would have focused on pressuring Saudi Arabia and intervening in Pakistan’s border areas. I suspect that Pakistan’s leadership would be savvy enough to understand that military resistance to the US would be futile. Accordingly, they would decide to make lemons out of lemonade by using the US campaign as an excuse to reassert state authority over border areas. In other words, I think they would be offended by US intervention, but eventually acquiesce to it and even assist it as a quid pro quo for retaining sovereign authority over their country. Without the pressure exerted by Bush, both Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Qaddafi would continue to defy U.N. inspectors. Qaddafi would continue to build a chemical warfare program, while Saddam would continue to bluff the world with nonexistent WMD. Given a concerted effort to catch Osama in Pakistan before the midterm elections of 2002, I think we would have captured or killed the man (just as we were able to capture Saddam Hussein). This would lead to a surge in Gore’s popularity, probably taking his approval ratings back up past the 70% mark. However, President Gore would be embarrassed by the revelations of the 9/11 Commission (which he would not have blocked or rendered toothless, and which therefore would have released its report earlier and with more sensation). In addition, the recession would reduce Democrats’ popularity at the polls, although a laser-beam focus on al Qaeda would probably have granted a boost outweighing the drag from the economy. Given the issues and likely focus on security, I think the Democrats would do fairly well, although not as well as the Republicans did in 2002 (Republicans wouldn’t be going into the election looking soft on security). In the 2002 midterm elections, Democrats would have retaken the Senate, picking up one or two seats. (Since Jim Jeffords of Vermont never had to switch parties in disgust at the right-wing Bush Administration, Republicans had controlled both Houses of Congress until this point). Democrats would probably have picked up a few seats in the House, but not enough to gain control. So President Gore would now be faced with a closely divided Congress. With al Qaeda effectively neutralized, he would have turned to his domestic agenda. Al Gore’s domestic agenda would be linked to ideas about American leadership in the world, because that way he could link national security (a winning issue for him) with domestic policy. So I expect he would have pushed environmental cooperation – since Kyoto would be a non-starter in the Senate, he would probably suggest a new conference to discuss climate change. He would release alarming reports about the likely pace and consequences of global warming, taking his fight to the people. Frankly, I don’t think he would have won this one. Republicans would have had enough votes to block major change, and while voters might be persuaded by Gore, they rarely vote for or against a candidate based on environmental policy (the economy, defense, and social issues all matter more). Al Gore would also have pushed a bill investing tens of billions per year in education. Since his tax cuts would have been quite modest and he wouldn’t be paying for the Iraq buildup and war, the economic recovery of 2003 would give him a small surplus to use for his education plan. I suspect he would have had to attach a small tax cut to gain Republican support, but that he would have succeeded in increasing education spending by a significant amount. At this point, President Gore would move on to a winning issue, with his eyes to the 2004 Presidential campaign. I suspect the issue would be a Medicare drug benefit – probably a more generous one than the Bush Administration’s proposal. Unlike Bush’s plan, his plan would allow the federal government to negotiate bulk discounts with drug companies, making its final cost similar to the Bush bill (despite its higher benefit levels). He would also propose a flurry of trivial issues that help divide moderates from Republicans – renewal of the assault weapons ban, periodic releases of Strategic Petroleum Reserves to lower gas prices, a targeted tax break for tuition, a patients’ bill of rights, etc. In 2004, Republicans would have nominated John McCain. I suspect they will nominate him in 2008, so he would be the obvious candidate in 2004 when he wasn’t quite as old. Gore would be relatively popular, but many people would crave change from the politics of the status quo. In addition, the postwar euphoria would have worn off and the people of the US would be doing what democratic peoples do best – punishing their leaders after a successful war (just ask Churchill or Bush Sr.). President Gore would be held responsible for all mistakes leading up to 9/11, while McCain could plausibly claim that his policies would have prevented the attack. Despite Gore’s generally fine performance, I suspect that his environmental crusade would make him seem fairly left-wing to centrist voters – precisely the kind of voters that love John McCain. So in 2004, John McCain might well have defeated Al Gore, especially given the Republican advantage in the electoral college. This is a tough call, and Gore may well have pulled it out, but I suspect that a middling economy, a failed effort at environmental cooperation, the failure to prevent 9/11, and McCain’s appeal to independents would have carried the day for the Republicans. On the other hand, I doubt that the Senate would have budged at all, although the House would stay in Republican hands. After McCain’s election, both Rehnquist and O’Connor would take their separate paths from the Supreme Court. McCain would probably have appointed people who could survive the Democrat-controlled Senate, so they would likely be similar to O’Connor in their pragmatism and respect for precedent. In other words, there would be three centrists on the Supreme Court instead of one (Kennedy). I think that the Chief Justice spot would either go to one of the newcomers or to Kennedy. At this point, McCain would probably turn to dealing with Saddam Hussein. Unlike Bush, his major objective would be to disarm Hussein. He would probably seek authorization for the use of force, receive it, and then use it to bully Hussein into allowing full UN inspections (as Bush did in 2002). Unlike Bush, McCain would be satisfied with full inspections and probably move towards normalizing relations after the inspections, in order to increase the flow of Iraqi oil and reduce the gas prices for Americans. I do not think that McCain would have led us into an Iraq War, given that Saddam Hussein actually did allow the inspections. McCain would also boost military pay and defense spending. On the domestic front, McCain would probably form a strategic alliance with the anti-gay crowd that helped him with its ballot initiatives on gay marriage in 2004. While he might not harbor anti-gay feelings himself, he would probably propose the usual Constitutional Amendments – ban gay marriage, ban flag burning, allow prayer in schools. On the other hand, since the pro-life crowd would already be angry at him for his appointments to the Supreme Court, he would probably not bother trying to placate them. This means that he would favor expansion of stem-cell research, previously permitted under some restrictions by the Gore Administration. Instead of a lame-duck incumbent with an Iraq War hanging from his neck, the Republican Party would enter the 2006 midterm election cycle with a popular, conservative President respected for his occasional flashes of moderation (campaign finance, stem-cell research). McCain would be popular enough to campaign for Republican candidates. The result would probably be virtually no change in either House of Congress – the Democrats would gain from the traditional midterm difficulties of the incumbent President’s party, but would also lose some votes to McCain’s popularity and more gay-marriage initiatives. Indeed, Republicans might actually take back the Senate, leaving them in a stronger position than they will likely have under Bush in 2007. And there we stand – I suspect that President Gore would have been a fine candidate who avoided war in Iraq while winning the war on al Qaeda. However, his very success in war would rob him of his strongest issue a few years later, leaving him vulnerable to a popular Republican like McCain. Tired of 12 years of Democratic rule, voters would oust Gore in favor of the maverick conservative from Arizona. McCain would probably face a less compliant Congress than Bush, so he would largely be forced to govern from the center, but he would still make use of the religious right to polarize the electorate in key states. In the end, McCain might well emerge as a more formidable force for conservative policy in his eight years (yes, I think he would be re-elected in 2008) than Bush has been to date. But the country would be immeasurably better-off, with a much smaller deficit, no agonizing war in Iraq, and closure in the War on Terror. While the US wouldn’t be loved by the rest of the world, neither would it be quite so hated as it is now. The average American would be better off, and so would the world.

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