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Adapted from an excerpt from  Presidents' Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions
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The Bullet We Dodged: McCain's and Palin's Many Wars

    Sarah Palin’s recent statement, that she would use waterboarding to baptize terrorists, goes beyond a gaffe or blunder. While she has a history before of bigotry against Muslims, this is the first time she managed to be offensive to both Christians and Muslims. In a single sentence, she managed to equate a holy Christian sacrament to torture and accuse all Muslims of being terrorists. Foot in mouth does not begin to cover it. Willing to anger and offend, and amazingly and willfully clueless, is far closer.

The episode is a reminder of the bullet the US and the world dodged when McCain was defeated. As an elderly man with serious health concerns, it is quite likely Palin would have replaced McCain as president. Even with disastrous wars and a recession, Obama could have lost the election. One of McCain's most fateful mistakes was suspending his campaign in the middle of congressional talks on the budget and stimulus. His loss in the polls during that episode was roughly equal to the margin he lost the election by.

    It is also quite possible Obama might not have been the Democratic nominee. Had Hillary Clinton's campaign been better run, she could have won the nomination. Her stance on both wars was almost identical to that of conservatives and Republicans. Thus many Democrats may have stayed home, and McCain might have won.

    We know fairly well what McCain would have done overseas. He seemingly never met a war he did not like. In 1997 he called for bombing infrastructure (roads, bridges, power stations, even hospitals) in Serbia. In 2007 he called for bombing Iran, even lightheartedly singing about it to the tune of the old Beach Boys song “Barbara Ann,” “Bomb, bomb, bomb...bomb Iran.” In 2008 he called for staying in Iraq “maybe 100 years.”

    It is thus certain he would stay in Iraq until forced out either by US public opinion or, more likely, the Iraqi government kicking him out. He did support more troops sent to Iraq in 2005, and likely would have wanted more troops in Afghanistan. It is also likely he would have bombed Libya far sooner than Obama did, and supported sending the rebels military aid. While he did support bombing Syria earlier and arming rebels, we do not know if McCain would have still been president that late.

    Again, the presidency takes many years off those who are in office. When McCain ran in 2008, he was older than Reagan, the oldest man to ever be president, was when he was elected to office. (Recall that Reagan suffered from Alzheimer's his last two years in office.) A year of captivity as a POW takes several years off your life, and McCain was a captive for over five years. He also survived a plane crash and was a heavy smoker for a quarter century.

    Should he have died or been incapacitated as president, Sarah Palin could be president for at least the rest of that term. She remains a deeply polarizing figure. More than almost any other politician, she does not have political skill, experience, or even drive. Not long after the failed election bid, she resigned suddenly as governor after only two years. Prior to that, she had been a small town mayor. Her academic career is modest, to be kind, a four year communications degree earned from four different schools over a five year period.

    Her lack of understanding on issues has become legendary, and plentiful material for comedians. An even greater problem is the mutual contempt between her and her own party. McCain's staff, the Republican Party leadership, and most major figures within the party do not care for her. Her base remains discontented populists within the party, some Fox News viewers, the Tea Party, and sexists who support her simply for finding her physically attractive.

    No matter at what point she potentially became president, she would be facing enormous handicaps, governing with perhaps half of one party supporting her. That portion of the party, and she herself, have frequently been accused of racism, and she and many of her supporters clearly are racists. Palin compared the federal debt to slavery, race baited Obama as “shucking and jiving,” compared disagreeing with her to the anti Semitic myth of blood libel, and appeared at rallies where her supporters screamed racist epithets, waved the Confederate flag, and called for her opponents' assassinations.

    Whether her comments were deliberate provocations or careless anger, her lack of diplomacy would have made her one of the worst presidents in relations with other countries. Ambassadors and diplomats would spend much of their time trying to ease the rancor she would create. Really there is no evidence she would even seek to avoid conflict. One of her most provocative comments was on the civil war in Syria, where she argued, “Let Allah sort them out.” In other words, who cares, let them kill each other. To anger over a billion Muslims by casually dismissing the value of their lives in five words is quite a feat, but she did so.

    Another concern is her borderline mental instability, not simply a lack of grace under fire, but delusional behavior. Her own aides noted a history of disturbing patterns, becoming erratic and withdrawn when criticized, even going into a “catatonic stupor.” McCain's campaign sheltered her during the election as much as possible from the media and public, but that is not possible as president. Shutting down during a crisis would worsen its problems, lengthen it, dismay allies and comfort enemies.

    It is a virtual certainty she would have tried to find ways to keep wars in Iraq and Afghanistan going. Even after the Iraqi government told US troops to leave, she likely would look for a way to keep them there. A war with Iran is a virtual certainty, as is US ground troops likely sent into Libya sooner, and kept there. The body count from Palin's Wars would be disturbingly long, and one that God would indeed take quite long to sort out.

    Neither McCain nor Palin would have resorted to a stimulus in response to the Great Recession. Their preferred placebo is tax cuts, which would only lengthen an economic crash and deepen inequality. Tax cuts are the worst possible solution for recessions or depressions, since they cut back on demand.   

         One of the easiest predictions is who would have been president after Palin. It would not be a Republican. The only possible exception would be if Palin did not finish her half term as president, which is a real possibility. Since she resigned under the pressure of being governor of Alaska, one of the least populated states, how long could she handle the pressures of being president?

          Who would Palin have chosen as her own vice president? Since she may very well quit, or be asked to step down for her mental state, that is relevant. In 2012 she came close to endorsing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for president. The two share in common their unpopularity with both the general public and their own party, plus their reputation for often offensive and not very well thought out speeches and positions.

    Gingrich, for example, called for poor students to be given jobs cleaning toilets at public schools so they “wouldn't have to become a pimp or a prostitute or a drug dealer.” Gingrich and Palin also have a similar history of ethical violations, both of them using political donations and public office for their personal benefit.

    Though Gingrich is far more experienced than Palin, he remains so unpopular with both his own party and the general public it is hard to imagine him being reelected. A McCain presidency could have led to the curious sight of three presidents in one term from the same party, going on to being defeated the next election. The body count for these three presidencies would include many more dead US soldiers, Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Iranians, and collateral damage from increased terrorist attacks.

Al Carroll is Assistant Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College and a former Fulbright Scholar. His other books are Medicine Bags and Dog Tags: American Indian Veteran Traditions from Colonial Times to the Second Iraq War and Survivors: Family Histories of Colonialism, Genocide, and War. He is a longtime activist and researcher for More information on him is at

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