Games of historical What if...? can be fun but their usefulness is limited since, of course, no matter how well you play, no matter how good your arguments and extrapolations are and how grounded in known facts and trends, you can't prove what an alternative future would have been like.
You can be certain that some events that did happen wouldn't have happened. But you can't be sure that events that didn't happen would have and you very likely aren't even imagining some events that would have happened instead.
We know what Lincoln was thinking he would do about the South after the War, but we can't know that if he'd said to Mary that night, "Dear, I'm just not in a mood for a comedy. Why don't we skip the theater tonight?" he'd have been able to control the direction and ultimate outcome of Reconstruction.
We know less about what Kennedy wanted to do in Vietnam, but still a good case can be made that if he had agreed to let the Secret Service put the bubbletop on the car or if Lee Harvey Oswald hadn't been the luckiest marksman in history, Kennedy would not have gotten us anywheres near as deep into Vietnam as LBJ did.
But could Kennedy have gotten the Civil Rights Act passed?
Another good game of What if...? there.
What if...? games are most useful for forcing attention on the past and the things we do know that happened and for illuminating facts about the historical characters involved.
A game of "What if Oswald had missed?" can tell us a lot of things about the differences between Kennedy and Johnson, about the state of our involvement in Southeast Asia as of Novemeber 22, 1963, and about the progress of the Civil Rights movment as of the same date.
What if Al Gore had been President on 9/11?
My knee-jerk answer, which I'm prepared to defend all day, is that September 11, 2001 would not be a red-letter date in history.
Should probably devote a whole post to that one, but: Given Gore's personal involvement and interest in the counterterrorism planning going on under Clinton, and given the fact that Al Gore is a far more detail-oriented, hands-on type of guy than George Bush (not to mention more conscientious and smarter), had he been given a memo like the one Bush was handed on August 6, 2001, Gore's reaction would not have been to yawn and continue with his vacation.
He'd have gotten such a memo well before Bush did too. There'd have been no Operation Ignore. Gore wouldn't have run Richard Clarke out of his administration. So he'd have had even more time to react.
Would President Gore's people, his FBI and CIA and counterterrorism units, been able to track down and capture the terrorists before they could hijack those planes?
Odds would have been in their favor, but we can't know that one.
We do know that it wouldn't have taken much to prevent the hijackings whether or not the terrorists were captured first.
Ordering cockpit doors locked, warning airports to step up their security and then making sure they followed up, putting air marshals aboard as many planes as possible and then making a general announcement that there were air marshalls at work---simple steps that almost certainly would have caused bin Laden to change his plans. It just required the President to take the threat seriously. *
Would President Gore have been able to prevent any terrorist attack on US soil? That's another game. What if bin Laden had felt he had to change his plans?
But there's another What if...? game set up here. Because the What if Gore had been President that day? game assumes that he could have been. There was no chance Barry Goldwater would have been President in 1965 to esclate the war in Vietnam. But Nixon could have been President in 1962 when Khruschev was thinking of putting those missles in Cuba, if Richard Daley hadn't come through for Kennedy in Chicago in 1960.
Al Gore could have been President in September 2001, because he was elected.
The What if...? game I'm thinking of is What if Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy had had more backbone or Sandra Day O'Connor had valued principle over partisanhsip? (No point in asking that question about Scalia, Thomas, and Rehnquist.) Now this one is another post: The Republicans would still have put up obstacles to Gore taking office and they might have kept him out of the White House because they wouldn't have accepted the outcome of any Florida recount that showed Gore the winner and they would have been able to cast doubt on the results because Gore's margin of victory would have been extremely slight and they had the votes in the Senate to possibly deny certification of the Electoral College vote.
The only way there would not have been a fight is if Gore had won two more states than he needed and if his popular vote victory had been larger, say by at least another half million votes.
That could have happened, I think, if Gore had decided to do two things differently at the beginning of his campaign.
One is that he hadn't distanced himself from the most popular Democratic President since FDR.
The best reason most Americans had for voting for Al Gore was that he would continue Bill Clinton's policies, and Gore himself made the case that he wouldn't by refusing to let Clinton campaign for him and by picking as his running mate the one Democratic Senator who had publically come out against Clinton during the Impeachment Crisis.
Lieberman didn't out and out call for Clinton to resign, but he might as well have, and his speech on the Senate floor chastizing Clinton emboldened the Republicans and gave them "bipartisan" cover for their attempted coup.
The second thing Gore could have done that would have helped him would have been to choose a Southerner as his VP. Lieberman was the wrong choice for two different although related reasons.
But that's another What if...? game.
What if Gore hadn't picked Lieberman?
Who would he have picked? Who should he have picked instead?
Scott Lemieux has a post at Lawyers, Guns and Money in which he rolls his eyes in dismay at James Carville's joining in with other Media Insider types to make the alternative universe argument that Tuesday's win for the Democrats was a victory for the Republican Lite-style faux-conservativism of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Scott can't believe anybody's still taking Carville seriously and he's dug up a quote from Carville from 2000 to prove that Carville is in a habit of giving Democrats really bad advice.
By choosing former Georgia governor Zell Miller as his running mate, Al Gore could add intellectual brainpower, rhetorical firepower, and lots of plain old populist piss-and-vinegar to this staid election.
Zell Miller, you ask? Red-faced, bulging veins, screaming like a lunatic in front of the Republican Convention in 2004, denouncing his fellow Democrats as cowards and traitors, and endorsing George Bush for President Zell Miller?
Scott asks, "Can someone remind me why I'm supposed to care about James Carville's views of Democratic strategy in 2006 again?"
An interesting discussion has developed in Scott's comments thread in which several people, including yours truly, make the case that Carville's championing Miller wasn't as crazy on the face of it in 2000 as it appears in hindsight now.
See particularly the comment from Gary Farber.
The question is whether you think that Carville could have known what Miller would become. Scott says yes, and Carville's misjudgment of Miller is evidence Carville hasn't known what he's talking about in a long time. (By the way, I agree with Scott on Carville's general uselessness, just not because of what he said about Miller.) But one of Scott's commenters, bemused, left a link to this review by Ed Kilgore of Miller's autobiography and Kilgore makes the case that Miller wasn't like Lieberman, a bad seed waiting for the right moment to turn on his party; Miller was a loyal Democrat, progressive by Georgia standards, and in many other ways exactly as good a choice for Gore as Carville suggested.
But, says Kilgore, Miller was driven off his rocker by the culture of the Senate to which he was appointed in 1999. Miller hated the clubby, elitist, cynical morals and mores of the insiders, but he made the mistake of thinking that because his fellow Democrats in the Senate acted that way, those morals and mores were Democratic. It apparently didn't occur to him that the Republican insiders were part of the same culture and they weren't about to tell him otherwise.
Because the Republicans were willing to join with Miller in his criticism of the Democrats, Miller assumed that meant they were on his side, which he believed to be the side of truth, justice, and the American way.
I don't know.
It always looked to me as though Miller's another formerly reasonable and decent person driven mad by 9/11. Kilgore's review suggests that Miller's big break with the Democrats came in 2002 and it was over issues of national security.
So... What if Al Gore had listened to James Carville in 2000?
I'm convinced that Al Gore would have become President.
Keep in mind that I don't think Miller would have been the best choice for Gore in 2000---that would have been Florida's Bob Graham---but in 2000 Miller was a former two-term governor of Georgia with a history of being a Clinton-style conservative-progressive. He was close to Clinton and had campaigned hard for him in 1992. He was and, at least in his own mind still is, the loyalist of Democrats. Of Dan Quayle he once remarked, "Not all of us can be born rich, handsome, and lucky, and that's why we have a Democratic Party."
Miller would have helped counter the (Media Insiders-created and promoted) impression that Gore was simply a pure product of the elitist Washington Establishment, a typical Northeastern Liberal who happened to have a Tennesse driver's license, an image that Lieberman's presence on the ticket reinforced.
And not only would having Miller on his tickent not have been an implicit criticism of Clinton, Miller would likely have counseled Gore to accept Bill's help on the campaign trail.
Lieberman was supposed to help Gore with the Jewish vote in Florida. But Miller would have helped him with the Southern vote in Florida.
And Miller would not have sat there like a lox in his debate with Dick Cheney.
And if the election still came down to Florida and the results were still that close and a recount fight took place, Miller would not have been the voice for timidity, over-caution, and a too early graceful acceptence of defeat that Lieberman was. Lieberman's future of appeasing Republicans---his strategy of premature surrender with a big smile, his apparent belief that it is more important to be liked by your political opponents than to defeat them---was predicted in his advice to Gore during the recount fights.
Gore wanted to appear to be the grown-up statesman, the champion of fair play, but the Media was covering the recounts as a sporting event and accepting the idea that the team that most wanted to win was the team that deserved to win.
The more combative Miller would have pushed Gore to be more combative himself.
So, with Miller on the ticket, Gore becomes President. Which means no 9/11 and no War in Iraq.
Incidental to that, Zell Miller doesn't go nuts.
There were signs that Miller was sliding rightward in the late 90s, but if Kilgore's right about why Miller flipped, then Miller would not have been a Senator long enough to have been driven nuts by the Senate's elitism, as the Senate's presiding officer he wouldn't have gotten as chummy with Republicans, in fact as Al Gore's Vice-President he wouldn't have had much time to spend there and he'd have mostly seen Republicans at a remove and as the opponents of all President Gore and he were trying to accomplish, which would have included Gore's anti-terrorist agenda---in Senator Miller's eyes, it was his fellow Democrats who were weak and dithering on issues of national security; in Vice President Miller's eyes it would have been the Republicans who weren't taking terrorism seriously.
My game has to stop sometime before 2004. I don't know if Gore would have been re-elected. I know he'd have been a better President than George W. Bush, but I don't know if he'd have been a better President than Jimmy Carter. I don't know what issues would have dominated the debate if September 11, 2001 had come and gone like any other day.
There are some things I'm certain would be the case had President Gore been in the middle of his second term right now and the Democrats controlled Congress, which they very likely would have retaken incrementally with gains in 2002 and 2004, though possibly losing some ground in 2006, as sitting Presidents have usually done in lame duck midterm elections.
One is, with no war in Iraq, no Right Wing appointments to the Supreme Court to "compromise" over, no chance in hell that the bankruptcy bill would have been signed into law, none of us would be worrying about what games the recently re-elected (in a landslide) Senator from Connecticut would be playing that might jeopardize the Democrats' slim majority in the Senate, which doesn't mean he wouldn't be playing those games. (What if Joe Lieberman had not had to serve the last five years with a Republican majority in the Senate and a Republican President to polish apples for?)
Another is, James Carville would still be on TV telling the Democrats that their best bet for accomplishing anything would be to do exactly as he and Bill Clinton did in 1992 and Scott Lemieux would still have good reason to shake his head in dismay.
For a reason why I like Bob Graham and wish Gore or Kerry had chosen him as his running mate, see this op-ed piece by Graham in the Washington Post.