What events turn out to be the hinges of history? Had the British and French stayed firm at Munich, would the Germans have deposed Adolf Hitler before World War II had a chance to begin? If King George had relented on taxation without representation, would we still be British? And had an NFL head coach with a reputation for a hot temper and ungoverned tongue jumped into the Senate race in 2004, would we be in the second term of President Hillary Clinton?
Probably not, but the thought has crossed a few minds in the years since, notably Mike Ditka’s:
President Mike Ditka? That would be an interesting alternate timeline to visit.
Ditka, the former Chicago Bears coach, was speaking at an oil company event last week in Watford City, N.D., when he recalled his decision not to run against Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race.
“Biggest mistake I’ve ever made,” Ditka said, according to the Dickinson Press newspaper. “Not that I would have won, but I probably would have and he wouldn’t be in the White House.”
Ditka’s name came up in 2004 as a potential candidate for the U.S. Senate after the Republican nominee, Jack Ryan, stepped down amid allegations by his ex-wife involving sex clubs.
The better what-if remains whether Ryan would have been able to beat Obama had the details of his divorce hadn’t been exposed. Obama had not contended in a truly competitive general election race up to that point in his career, and Ryan was a well-regarded up-and-comer in his own right, an articulate conservative with camera appeal. The scandalous details of his behavior put an end to Ryan’s political life, and he’s sunk into obscurity since.
Republicans like to think that Ditka would have made the difference, and there’s no doubt he would have performed better in Illinois than the hapless Alan Keyes, a Marylander who got 27% of the vote in Illinois in that election. With George Bush at the top of the ticket, Ditka could have had some wind at his back, too. But John Kerry ended up smoking Bush in Illinois that year by ten points, so it’s more likely that Ditka would have faced a headwind instead. Even Ditka’s fans would concede that Da Coach would have some problems keeping a civil tongue in his head in a tough political fight, while Obama had the Chicago Machine and the cool, detached demeanor to make him look more prepared for reasoned debate. Speaking of which, Obama would at least have had enough immersion in the political arena to get through a debate; he debated Keyes without getting damaged, and Keyes would have had a better grasp of issues and policies than Ditka.
It’s an amusing instance of fantasy politics, but the what-ifs here are not terribly compelling. Ditka made the right choice, even if Illinois — and four years later, the rest of the country — didn’t.