The Republican Party that McCain aspired to create and lead in 2000 would have been a more socially libertarian and perhaps even more interventionist version of the party that George W. Bush led. But Bush destroyed that party through his blunders, and by the time McCain was picked to succeed him, the GOP and the country had moved on. Ron Paul, not McCain, was the standard-bearer for libertarian Republicanism by then, as his son Rand Paul is today. Bill Kristol, sensing that McCain needed a running mate with credibility among the grassroots right, lobbied to put Palin on the ticket. Instead of Palin’s populist credentials saving McCain Republicanism, however, her popularity with the base confirmed that the future would belong to someone like Donald Trump. George W. Bush’s wars and mismanagement of the economy achieved what Pat Buchanan’s campaigns in the 1990s had not been able to do—to turn the GOP toward nationalism.
If McCain had been in the nominee in 2000 instead of Bush, would the same thing have happened? McCain was the better man than Bush, with the scars to prove that war was no mere exercise in idealism to him. But that doesn’t mean he would have been a better president. The remarkable thing, looking back at what Kristol and Brooks wrote about McCain at the turn of the century, is how they wanted McCain to play exactly the role that Trump now plays, albeit with a different policy script. “The McCain insurgency is not ideological. It does feature certain themes and principles, but they are not yet fully developed into a governing agenda,” they wrote. “McCain is trying to bring new and unlikely blood into Republican ranks. … Many of these new Republican primary voters seem ill-suited to the GOP. But that’s what insurgencies do. They expand the base. They topple the old establishment by bringing in new people. They create new alliances within the party.” Imagine Kristol