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Spin Control: A ‘what if’ scenario from McCain’s 2000 campaign in Washington

Whitworth student Ben Robinson, right,  waits to shake hands with conservative Republican presidential candidate John McCain during his Wednesday visit to Spokane in 2000.
Whitworth student Ben Robinson, right, waits to shake hands with conservative Republican presidential candidate John McCain during his Wednesday visit to Spokane in 2000.

While watching last week’s tributes to Sen. John McCain, there was a nagging “what if” that rattled around in my brain, prompted by a memory from the 2000 presidential campaign.

What if McCain had been right about the “coalition” strategy that he espoused during a visit to Washington ahead of the state’s primary at a pivotal point in that campaign? As he stumped at Gonzaga University, Seattle and Bremerton in late February of that year, he described a plan of reaching out to independents and moderates, getting enough votes in both the GOP and independent ballots the state was issuing that year to prove he was a better option for November than George W. Bush.

Even if he narrowly lost the GOP primary, but had more votes overall when the independent ballots were counted, he suggested he could notch a win and gain momentum.

As it turned out, Bush beat McCain by more than 90,000 votes in the GOP primary and got the handful of delegates that came with them. While McCain did about 90,000 votes better in the independent tally, Bush finished about 2,000 votes ahead overall and those independent votes were quickly forgotten. Two weeks later, McCain dropped out.

But what if that quixotic, mad dash across the state – a flight from Spokane to Boeing Field, a bus ride up I-5 to a downtown speech, then a ferry ride across the Sound with former Vietnam vets and POWs – had worked, giving McCain the momentum to keep winning and eventually capture the Republican nomination?

He would have picked a different vice president than Dick Cheney, although it seems unlikely he would have convinced his longtime ally Sen. Joe Lieberman to join his ticket instead of Al Gore’s. Maybe he picks a running mate that delivers one more state and beats Gore in November without the need for a recount.

Al-Qaida probably would have still planned the Sept. 11 attack, and though a McCain administration may have been more on the alert, that might not have stopped planes from flying into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. McCain, who liked to change the words of “Barbara Ann” to “Bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb-Iran” might have have sent even more troops, planes and missiles into Afghanistan faster and hit any place that was thought to be aiding Osama bin Laden. He might not have rushed into Iraq on shaky evidence of weapons of mass destruction, although he did later insist it was the right move and could have called for “the surge” much quicker.

A 2004 race between McCain and Democrat John Kerry could have been far more civil, with McCain shutting down any “Swift Boat” attacks. Or perhaps Kerry would have chosen to wait four years before running, leaving the race to Howard Dean, John Edwards and others. The 2008 Republican nomination could have gone to Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee or Ron Paul; Sarah Palin would be known chiefly as the first female governor of Alaska.

There’d likely be one thing different that Spokane residents would see if McCain had won in 2000: squadrons of newer air-refueling tankers at Fairchild Air Force Base.

After Sept. 11, Sen. Patty Murray and then-Rep. George Nethercutt pushed a plan for Boeing to convert its 767 line to make new tankers that could replace the aging KC-135s. The idea was for the Air Force to lease the tankers from Boeing to cut down on budget costs in the short term and base them at Fairchild.

Boeing liked it. The Pentagon liked it. The Washington delegation loved it. The whole thing seemed greased until Sen. McCain balked. The numbers didn’t add up, he said, because in the long run leasing planes would be more expensive and the Air Force would have to give them back when the lease was up. That started a series of investigations into how the whole deal had come together that turned up some shady dealings between a Boeing executive and a Pentagon official over plans for the new tanker.

With McCain in the White House instead of the Senate, he wouldn’t have had time to lead the charge against what he called a “bogus” deal. If his Air Force officials convinced him the country needed new tankers and he didn’t like the lease deal, he could have brought members of Congress into the Oval Office and worked out a way to find the money to buy them.

In the end, the Air Force did buy a version of the 767 for its new KC-46A tanker after nearly 10 years of investigations and fights over whether the plane should be built by Boeing or a coalition that included Airbus. But by then, the Air Force had a new system for deciding where the planes would go, and Fairchild got left out. As a consolation, it gets more KC-135s, which will probably be flying for decades.

Sometime foe, sometime ally

McCain and Murray argued over things other than tankers. When she was running for re-election in 2010, McCain made a pitch for her opponent, Republican Dino Rossi, with a phone-in question and answer session with the state’s press corps.

At the time, McCain was highly critical of earmarks, the budgeting process of requiring money to be spent on a particular project in a particular place. Murray was a defender of the process, saying members of Congress have a better idea of local needs than bureaucrats in Washington.

During the call, McCain came close to calling Murray corrupt. “She engages in that corrupt practice, whether she is corrupt or not, I’ll let others decide.”

But the two worked together on other things, including veterans issues, which Murray acknowledged in her tribute after he died: “The world lost a giant tonight. …Whether it was side-by-side or on opposite sides, he earned my respect every time and I truly believe the Congress and our country are better places for his life’s work.”


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