Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Top 10 Underrated Political Alternate Histories

Guest post by A.J. Nolte.

With the 2012 election in full swing, it’s worth taking a look at 10 alternate scenarios, themed around elections, which haven’t really been explored much in alternate history, but which could have dramatically altered the current American political landscape. I've tried to draw on both Republican and Democratic primary election changes. Most of them date from the twentieth century, but I’ll try to throw in a few nineteenth century scenarios to spice things up a bit. Thus, in no particular order, here are the scenarios:

Speaker Cheney

Long before he was the boogie-man of liberal anxiety during the Bush Administration, Dick Cheney was nominated by the first President Bush to be Secretary of Defense. However, Cheney wasn't Bush’s first pick for the position, and was only chosen as a safe alternative after the nomination of John Tower went down in flames. But what if Tower’s nomination had succeeded or Bush had picked a different secretary of defense? At the time, Cheney was actually senior to Newt Gingrich in Republican house leadership. Thus, it’s likely Republicans would have gone into the historic 1994 mid-term elections with Cheney, not Gingrich, at the helm. Would they still have won their crushing majorities absent the Contract with America?

It’s certainly plausible; a lot of debate remains about the role the Contract played in Republican victories verses, for example, a trickling down of southern realignment to the congressional level, Clinton’s health care failures and so on. Thus, it is very possible we could have seen a Clinton/Cheney, rather than a Clinton/Gingrich showdown. If that doesn't tickle your political fancies, just imagine Cheney and Gingrich battling it out for leadership of the Republican house caucus. The two men weren't exactly pals during their mutual house careers, so the battles between them could have been legendary.

A Different Democratic Hope

In 1992, Democrats were desperate for a figure capable of leading them out of their twelve-year electoral wilderness. By unlikely coincidence, they settled on a young southern governor named Bill Clinton. But Clinton’s coronation was anything but assured. In fact, the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination in 1992 was New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Its possible Cuomo was seen as too liberal by a victory-hungry Democratic Party establishment wary of the Dukakis disaster, or that Cuomo himself was wary of the seemingly popular President Bush, but it’s not implausible we could have seen a Bush/Cuomo general election.

However, for me, another Democrat is a much more interesting possible candidate. Moderate Democrats were torn in 1992 between Clinton and Virginia governor Doug Wilder. If some of Clinton’s more…adventurous…lifestyle choices had come out earlier, might the Democratic Leadership Council types have gravitated to Wilder? This would have made Wilder, if he won, the first African-American nominee of either major party, and a full 16 years before Barack Obama. Could he have won such an election? Would President Bush have tapped war hero Colin Powell for his ticket in the 1992 election, in order to try and counter the narrative of a historic election? Would it have worked? Fascinating speculations, which could be the source of a crackling good electoral AH.

A Republican Primary without Ike

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s candidacy for the Republican nomination was by no means a foregone conclusion in 1952; it took a lot of arm-twisting from two-time Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey to get the popular war hero into the ring. Eisenhower also seriously considered not running for a second term in 1956. Either of these elections would have been a fascinating free-for-all without Ike.

In 1952, the Republican Party was dominated by the Dewey/Taft split, an internal party squabble between interventionist, east coast moderates and quasi-isolationist, Midwestern conservatives. Without Dewey, the Taft wing of the party would have been immeasurably stronger, possibly making Robert Taft the nominee in 1952, and throwing the election’s outcome very much in doubt. An equally intriguing possibility is that moderate but law-and-order governor Earl Warren could have won the nomination, with a conservative Taft supporter as his Vice-President.

In 1956, things were even more jumbled. Taft was dead, while Nixon was not trusted by many Dewey supporters, so might not have had the field cleared for him. Could 1956 without Ike have been the year in which Harold Stassen finally broke through, or would another Republican politician have emerged to take up the gauntlet? Needless to say, the impact on a different Republican nominee, and a different President of either party, would have been enormous for civil rights, the cold war and the near future electoral history of the U.S.

[Editor's Note: Or we could have had a President Disney.]

The Presidency of Aaron Burr

Imagine a situation where a Republican congress got to choose the President, with the catch that their options were Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama? This was the situation which faced the Federalist congress after the election of 1800, one of the bitterest and most divisive elections in American history (picture one party accusing the other party, openly, of being agents of a nation with whom we were at war, while being accused of serious abridgements of freedom themselves…and both accusations proving, in retrospect, to be sort of true). Their choices, in this case, were between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

Given that one of these men would end up rated by historians as one of our top ten presidents, while the other shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel then got involved in a number of extremely sketchy conspiracies, those bye-gone Federalists probably made the right choice. But picture this scenario instead. Aaron Burr promises to work with the Federalists more than Jefferson, and gets the nod from congress. He then actually confirms all of President Adams’ “midnight appointments”, thereby butterflying Marbury vs. Madison away, and possibly delaying or altering the American concept of Judicial Review. How different would a Burr presidency have been from Jefferson’s? There have been a few alternate history short stories on the topic, but its fertile ground for speculation.

A Second Coolidge term

Call this one the “Milton Friedman special”. It’s a common conceit of libertarian economists that a truly non-interventionist U.S. policy in the aftermath of the 1929 stock exchange crash would have dramatically changed the Great Depression. Keynesians, by contrast, argue that less intervention would have made the situation immeasurably worse. Both would have a field day with this scenario.

In 1928, Calvin Coolidge opted not to run for a second full term as President, and was replaced by Herbert Hoover. Hoover was certainly more of an economic interventionist than Coolidge, who reportedly told farmers coming to ask the government for help in a bad agricultural year to “take up religion”. Do you think a less interventionist economic policy would have decreased the Great Depression, or made it worse, possibly giving space to more radical demagogues? This electoral scenario would give perspective writers free range to counter-factually explore the assumptions behind their own economic beliefs.

1976 Democratic Primary

In retrospect, Jimmy Carter has been lionized by progressives as a tragic warrior who fought hard for many of their pet causes, and vilified by conservatives as an ideological president too far to the left for the country. Both of these characterizations would have shocked liberal Democrats in 1976, who encouraged California governor Jerry Brown and senator Frank Church to enter the Democratic nominating contest. Unfortunately for these progressives, they failed to fully understand the impact of the Democrats’ new primary-heavy nominating system.

By contrast Carter, a hitherto obscure governor from Georgia, grasped the importance of these new nominating contests, and used them to crush more established Democratic names. But what if some of these politicians had picked up on the importance of primaries sooner?

The list of Democrats running in 1976 runs from George C. Wallace to Birch Bayh (author of two constitutional amendments and a progressive hero), to Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson, a savvy cold warrior after whom Joe Lieberman seems to have modeled his senate career. Any one of them would have made a fascinating candidate to go up against Gerald Ford, and if you add in the contentious primary between Ford and an up-start governor from California named Ronald Reagan, the permutations of this alternate 1976 are almost endless.

George Wallace, civil rights moderate

When you think George Wallace, you probably instantly remember the now infamous phrase: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” What most people don’t know is that, in 1958, the fiery racial populist was actually considered a civil rights moderate.

In 1948, Wallace refused to join Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat walk-out of the Democratic convention. African-American lawyers in Alabama in the 1950s called Wallace “the most liberal judge” in the state, and there’s speculation that his granting of probation to some African-Americans may have cost him the 1958 gubernatorial election. His opponent in this Democratic primary, John Malcolm Patterson, ran with the support of the KKK, winning the primary by getting to Wallace’s right on race. Reportedly, Wallace vowed never to let this happen again after his 1958 loss.

If Wallace was a primarily opportunistic segregationist, it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had he won in 1958. Would Governor Wallace still have beaten the drum on segregation quite so vehemently without the stinging results of this primary? Very possibly; as a populist, he likely would have seen this position as “what the people wanted”. Equally plausible, however, would have been a post-1958 Wallace who focused his efforts on other issues, such as economic development. And if he retained his somewhat moderate views pre-1958, it’s interesting to speculate about Wallace’s potential national future. Regardless of the possible result, it’s interesting to note how much losing an election can change a candidate’s future.

Scenarios which don’t involve Wilson or Roosevelt

Many historians have speculated about the outcome of a TR victory in 1912. Surprisingly, however, there’s been very little discussion of the outcome if William Howard Taft, the incumbent Republican, had managed to beat Wilson in 1912. The idea isn't entirely implausible of course; a little less ego from one, a little more compromise from the other, and the Taft/Roosevelt split might well have been patched up short of an open breech in the Republican Party.

One possibility would be to make Archibald Butt, a military officer with a foot in both camps, miss his boat in April 1912. He was, of course, one of the passengers on the RMS Titanic. But perhaps more intriguing is a brief mention in several sources that Governor Herbert S. Hadley was considered as a compromise candidate, but declined to be nominated due to tuberculosis. Absent this illness, could a different little-known politician from Missouri have risen to the nation’s highest office, just in time to face a world war?

A Different Bush, A Different McCain

With Jeff Greenfield’s short story 43*, we've now seen a realistic attempt to envision what a Gore presidency would have looked like. But as it turns out, it’s not that hard to butterfly away the presidency of George W. Bush without a Gore victory.

In 1994, two Bushes ran for the governorships of two different states: George W. in Texas and Jeb Bush in Florida. It was always broadly assumed by the Bush inner circle that Jeb, not George W, would be the next Bush to run for the White House. Jeb, however, lost his run for governor in 1994, only to come back and win in 1998. It was George who, after a term and a half as governor, ran for the top job in 2000.

Flip those 1994 electoral outcomes, and a very different Bush—possibly holding some rather different views—would have been a likely candidate for political office. Of course, an equally likely possibility is that both Bush sons lose in 1994, leaving a wide open Republican field in 2000. Possible candidates include Michigan governor John Engler, Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, New York governor George Pataki, Utah senator Oren Hatch, and—because I have a fondness for dark horses you've never heard of—North Dakota governor Ed Schafer.

However, the odds-on favorite, absent a Bush, was probably Arizona senator John McCain. Healways had a bit of a right flank problem in the 2000 Republican primary, but assuming his primary competition came from an openly pro-choice candidate like Ridge, might social conservatives have gravitated to him? How would his broad, moderate appeal in 2000 have weathered a tough campaign against the Vice President, who he promised he would “beat like a drum”? And how would a President McCain, if victorious, have responded to the events of 9/11? All of this would make for a fascinating alternate history.

Election 2008, Without Obama or Palin

2008 was an election marked by the meteoric rise of two hitherto obscure politicians into the national spotlight. Barack Obama’s rise to the White House began in 2004, while Alaska governor Sarah Palin didn't truly make her mark until 2006. However, life could have turned out very, very differently for both Obama and Palin.

There are several interesting paths for Obama, but in my mind, the most interesting would have been an Obama victory in the 2000 Democratic congressional primary against Representative Bobby Rush. Would Congressman Obama, representing a very progressive African-American district, have been able to tack to the center sufficiently to maintain his national profile? Or, would he have been seen, like Newark mayor Corry Booker, as simply one of many rising young African-American politicians focused on reform? Of course, there are plenty of ways to prevent Obama from winning in 2004, from a more successful campaign by his primary rival Blair Hull, to the divorce records of Republican nominee Jack Ryan either not coming out, or coming out before the Republican primary, thereby allowing Republicans to pick another nominee.

Of course, the easiest alternate history in this regard would be for Peter Fitzgerald to run for reelection. He would not have been a shoe-in, of course, and the Illinois Republican Party would almost certainly opposed him in a competitive primary, but the eventual winner would have given state Senator Obama a real fight in November, particularly in the good Republican year of 2004.

For Palin, the butterflies are much easier. She could have lost the 2006 Alaska gubernatorial election, either in the primary or general election. She might very well have decided to run against Lisa Murkowski for the senate in 2004. It’s an open question whether she would have won such a fight, but if she did, her rise to the national spotlight would have happened earlier, more gradually, and probably with less fanfare. This in turn would probably have made her less attractive to John McCain, who was looking for a game-changer in the race. The easiest solution would have been for McCain to simply not pick her. Other potential candidates, such as Joe Lieberman, Carly Fiorina and Tim Pawlenty, received trial balloons prior to the Palin pick, and McCain could have gone with one of them.

But how would these different circumstances have changed the 2008 election? Palin is the easiest variable to predict; McCain would still have lost. Faced with the first African-American presidential nominee of either major party, and given the image problems Republicans had in 2008, there was simply no way McCain was going to pull out a win, absent a major, positive game-changing moment. Additionally, McCain ran on the premise that 2008 would be a foreign policy election, and was a self-admitted novice on the economic issues which proved to dominate the election.

Without Obama, the picture becomes murkier. I submit that some sort of organized stop Hilary Clinton movement was almost inevitable, given the level of visceral hatred Republicans and many independents held for her at the time (what a difference 4 years makes). It’s also worth keeping in mind that many progressive Democrats weren't exactly enamored of the Clinton legacy. Would Democrats have rallied around John Edwards—an unfortunate choice in retrospect—or perhaps gone for a different historical first with then New Mexico Governor—and Latino—Bill Richardson? Or would anti-Hilary Democrats have turned, as their party has so often in the past, to a popular southern governor like Mark Warner or Phil Bredesen? The speculative possibilities are endless, and endlessly fascinating.

Honorable Mention: Third party scenarios?

We hear a lot from election to election about how nice it would be to have a viable third party candidate, or a third party president. But, realistically, how plausible is such an outcome post-1900? The short answer, in my view, is not very, but not for the reasons you might think. In fact, the reason we don’t have a viable third party in the U.S. is precisely because every third party focuses like a laser on running a candidate for president. However, generally-speaking, you don’t get to be President unless you've run for and won an office previously, and all-too-often, third party candidates are first-time candidates.

There’s another reason why the presidency trap kills third parties; it prevents them from building a viable party organization in any one of the fifty states. You can’t win an election without hundreds of thousands of people knocking on doors, making phone calls, pushing their friends to vote for you and giving you money. Unfortunately for them, most third parties focus so totally on their quixotic quest for the matching funds 5% of the popular vote in a presidential election would bring, that they utterly fail to do the incredibly difficult-but-essential work of building up local party structures.

If you want to talk about third party scenarios, I suppose the most plausible would be 1948, 1968, 1980 and 1992. In each of these cases, third party candidates actually won significant portions of the popular vote. However, if you look at the Electoral College map, only Wallace and Strom Thurmond won actual electoral votes.

Take Ross Perot as an example here. Eighteen percent of the vote is a very respectable share of the vote for a third party candidate, and Perot used this as a platform to create the Reform Party. Unfortunately for Perot, and the third party ideal, he focused on attempting to repeat his performance in 1996, rather than carefully building up state and local party organizations, running strong candidates for state legislative and congressional races, and thereby forging the types of coalitions he would have needed to actually one day win a presidential election. The utter collapse of the Reform Party post-Perot, and its vacillation between Pat Buchanan in 2000 and Ralph Nader in 2004, demonstrate my point about the problems of candidate-centric third party efforts quite powerfully.

* * *

A.J. Nolte is a PHD candidate in international relations at Catholic University and an aspiring sci-fi and alternate history writer . He is knowledgeable in Byzantine, medieval, ACW, Cold War, Islamic and post-colonial history. Also, he'll read almost anything once if it's got an airship in it.


  1. In 1956, Taft was too dead to run.

    1. You are absolutely right. I don't think AJ will mind if I correct that...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.