Folks, this is a redux of a timeline project I first posted a while ago. Part I is mostly written, and it may cease there depending on what people think. Expect the first update tomorrow. It centers on what may have happened if John McCain had stuck with his gut and named Joe Lieberman as his running mate. On his deathbed, McCain said he deeply regretted going with Sarah Palin over Lieberman. In this scenario, he doesn't. Part I focuses on the 2008 campaign. It's certainly a different election with McCain/Lieberman. My hope is to begin a conversation about how a national unity ticket would work and whether the 2008 election was truly a foregone conclusion. At the end of Part I, I may decide to continue it further, to envision what the aftermath of a different 2008 would look like. We'll see when the time comes. Anyway, here we go:

1. The Choice.
The Choice.

"In any normal year, Tim Pawlenty's a great pick, a no-brainer.
But this isn't a normal year. We need to have a transformative,
electrifying moment in this campaign. We need Joe."

-Steve Schmidt, McCain campaign manager

"Joe, I want you with me on this campaign. I really think we can do this.
So, whaddya say, put country first with me?"

-John McCain, 2008 Republican presidential nominee
“Look, the worst-case scenario is that the social conservatives go nuts over Lieberman being pro-choice. So, they walk out of the convention. What happens? We spin it in the press and say this is exactly what John McCain meant when he said that he was putting country first.” Nicolle Wallace made her case and rested her hands on the table. She was adamant that this was the only way to win the election. She believed in her bones that John McCain needed to be the 44th president of the United States. She had finally found a way, and she was determined to make it happen.

She was not alone in supporting the plan, which had originated with Senator McCain himself. For months, the campaign had seen the writing on the wall. It was a bad year to be the Republican nominee for president. George Bush’s unpopularity was heavy baggage. The War in Iraq had grown so unpopular that it had even contributed to Hillary Clinton, who merely voted for the war with most of her party and had since renounced her stance, losing the Democratic nomination. If the country was going to elect John McCain, John McCain needed to present the race with a game changer.

After an extensive vetting process that had begun in April, five names emerged: Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who had run second in the race for the nomination, Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida, Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, and Michael Bloomberg, the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent Mayor of New York City. None of these four names impressed the campaign team or the candidate himself. The only name on the list that appealed to John McCain was Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman.

Steve Schmidt, McCain’s campaign manager, agreed with Wallace’s assessment. “We have to do this. It’s the only way that gets us across the finish line.”

The senator listened carefully. Pollster Bill McInturff had different ideas about how the choice would be perceived. “You’re going to lose votes with Republicans. Will they come home? Maybe. It’s hard to tell exactly, but probably only if the election gets close, and I don’t see you gaining with independents enough to get across the finish line. I doubt this is your best idea.”

The Republican National Convention was only a little more than a week away. John McCain had still not made the most important political decision of his career.

“Senator, I know you’re worried. I know you want to win. Steve and I have created a media roll-out plan that is going to make sure the country understands why you've selected Lieberman and minimize negative reaction from the right. The only way you can do this, though, is to take the one-term pledge. That minimizes any fear among the right that you’re going to leave Joe Lieberman in charge of the country,” Wallace said.

John McCain leaned back in his chair, rubbing his head. “I’ve got to do what’s right for this country. For this campaign. I hear your numbers Bill, but I’m not convinced. I have to trust my gut on this one and my gut tells me there are a lot of ex-Hillary voters who want to vote for a steady hand. Independents, yes, and some Democrats, too. The Republicans will come home. They always do. Get Joe on the phone,” he said. “I have something to ask him.”

Wallace and Schmidt left the room and practically ran to their desks. They immediately went to their desks and began calling prominent conservative Republicans to get them to back up their choice. Schmidt was making calls to people, urging them to sign on to help the campaign with an “important delegate whipping operation.” No one was sure what it meant, but many signed on to help the campaign in St. Paul. The hardest part for them was their need to keep it quiet. If anyone found out about Lieberman the second before it was supposed to be released, the strategy could implode.

The afternoon after the Democratic National Convention gaveled to a close, John McCain was in Dayton, Ohio to announce his choice for a running mate. At the end of a speech that outlined his plans to help the industrial Midwest, McCain pivoted to his introduction of a running mate. “If we are going to accomplish all of this,” he told the crowd, “we have to work together - Republican and Democrat - to solve the problems that divide us. We need a president and vice president who are committed to that mission, not to getting reelected.”

He continued, “That is why I am pledging today to only serving one term as your president, and I will have by my side one of the most capable men in the country. I have chosen a running mate whose life represents service. He’s a man of conviction who has bucked his own party over some of the most important issues of our day. He has fought to maintain integrity at the highest levels of government and he has become one of the most vocal supporters of our troops. Ladies and Gentlemen: please welcome my running mate and your next vice president, Senator Joe Lieberman of the great state of Connecticut!”

McCain was drowned out by the audience as Joe Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, and his four children. The audience continued to roar their approval as Lieberman embraced his dear friend and Cindy McCain. He got to the podium, ready to reintroduce himself to America as the Republican candidate for vice president, but his plans were put on hold while the audience continued chanting “Joe! Joe! Joe!” just as supporters of Al Gore had done eight years earlier in Nashville, Tennessee.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Joe began, “I am honored to be here with you today. I am honored by your support and I am humbled by the confidence that my dear friend, and our next president, John Sidney McCain, has put in me today. I know that my nomination is a surprise - a shock - to many of you. I am sure for that many of you I was not your first choice. I accept that, but today - today allow me to offer the clarity of my convictions and through that you may come to see why I was John’s.”

He went on, “I believe in a promised land: America.” Again, Lieberman was interrupted by dramatic applause. “I believe in the land that our founding fathers created to be what Ronald Reagan once called a shining city upon a hill. I also believe it is the responsibility of all of us to make that possible. It doesn’t matter if we’re Republican or Democrat. Before any of us think about who we vote for at the ballot box, we care about one unifying identity. We are all Americans.

“John McCain has said that he would rather lose an election than lose a war. I agree with him, and that’s why I am here. Our future is uncertain. These are dangerous times. We cannot have a celebrity president who is more concerned about speeches and poll numbers than our troops on the ground and the laws that need to pass Congress.” It was a tough shot at the Democratic nominee, an effort by Wallace to get the Obama campaign to engage with Lieberman as a worthy rival and convince Republicans he was up to the fight.

“John and I are going to do this for four years. We’re going to spend every day doing the best we can to bring our country together - to make sure that the day-to-day realities that we all face are realized by our president. That means doing what we can to make it a little easier at the pump. It means making sure that we create jobs and expand our economy. It means creating opportunity for every American, and it means keeping our nation safe every single day. We are up to that fight!”

The rest of the speech went after Barack Obama’s lack of experience and the McCain/Lieberman vision of an America that comes together to address its biggest problems. At the end of the event, McCain and Lieberman embraced once more as the audience rose to their feet. “Joe! Joe! Joe!” they chanted before transitioning to that familiar slogan that today had some real weight behind it: “Coun-try first! Coun-try first! Coun-try first!”
2. The Fallout.
The Fallout.

"I'm going to run for the vice presidential nomination in St. Paul,
and I fully expect to emerge with the party's nomination..."

-Rick Santorum, former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania

"What the hell is John doing?"

-Karl Rove, Republican campaign strategist
“What does John McCain expect? For those of us who make up the backbone of this party - the social conservatives who care about the most basic issue in our country - that of life - to roll over and vote for a Democrat who isn’t offended by the murder of the unborn? I don’t think so,” said Rick Santorum, a conservative former senator from Pennsylvania. “I’m going to run for the vice presidential nomination in St. Paul, and I fully expect to emerge with the party’s nomination, and then - with a unified Republican Party - John McCain and I will beat Barack Obama and the left.”

The announcement came the day after Joe Lieberman was named as the party’s nominee, but by then many conservatives had been placated already. Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee had spent the last 24 hours defending McCain’s “right to choose his own running mate” and said that they would support Joe Lieberman at the convention. Said Huckabee, “He’s not who I would have chosen - not in a million years - but Republicans voted for John McCain and we should continue to trust his judgment.”

Immediately after the announcement, McCain and Lieberman sat down for an interview with Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News. The interview aired that night. In it, doubts about the ticket’s commitment to being pro-life were addressed head-on. Williams asked McCain if he intended to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you right now that I have some kind of absolute test for judicial nominees, but I am going to tell you that I voted for John Roberts. I voted for Sam Alito. My judicial nominees will not be very different from them. They are going to be people who evaluate cases on their merits but also ones who understand that we need to protect certain unalienable rights and among those rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. My nominees will be those who respect the sanctity of life, of course.”

When Williams asked what would happen if something compelled Lieberman to take office, Lieberman was very clear, “I am going to govern according to the philosophy that John McCain and I share: Country first. It’s his vision that the American people are voting for, and that’s the vision that I would support as president. Sure, we have differences on some issues, but I am not going to sit here and go through them when there is far more that unites our country than divides it, and that’s the attitude we need to bring to Washington.”

Williams pressed further, asking, “If you ascend to the presidency and you have to appoint a vice presidential nominee to fill your spot - are you going to pick a Republican or a Democrat?” Lieberman was unequivocal: “I am going to appoint the best person for the job. As I define it, that means the person who is best able to accomplish the mantra of Country First than John and I are bringing with us to Washington. If I am elected, it’ll be on our nation’s first bipartisan ticket since the Civil War, and I will leave office in that way, too. This only works when both parties feel represented, and so yeah - I’m going to appoint a Republican if that happens, but more importantly: It’s going to be the best person for the job.”

Later that night, the ticket sat down for a live interview on Fox News with Sean Hannity. It was their second interview since the announcement and it happened to be on the same day. Just as Wallace had planned, it was a dramatic and forceful way to maintain control of the story. Some Republicans had come forward to voice their discontent on the first day, but they were largely drowned out by the country’s obsession with the new ticket. Hannity asked questions that were similar to the ones Williams had asked. The candidates’ answers varied little. They were doing this to move the country forward and heal its broken nature, and if something happened to John, Joe would simply continue that mantle.

“Look,” Lieberman said in his interview with Hannity, “It’s not like John named Barack Obama his running mate. I come to this office with experience. I come to this office with a commitment to getting the job done - and to do it well. If God forbid, something happened to John in office, Republicans nor the American people need to worry that the entire nation will be flipped on its head. I’m not going to suddenly pull us out of Iraq, because I don’t believe that’s right for our country. I’m not going to start having abortions-on-demand at Wal-Mart because I don’t believe that’s right for our country, either. Before anything else, my commitment is to the American people and to American democracy. It’s to country first.”

When Santorum made his announcement on Fox & Friends the next morning, he was asked why McCain’s commitment to pro-life judges and Lieberman’s commitment to governing according to McCain’s vision wasn’t enough for him. “Because Joe Lieberman does not believe in the sanctity of life,” he insisted. The hosts were unimpressed.

“I’m confused, senator, because while many voters may have shared that sentiment a few days ago, Joe Lieberman has made it pretty clear he’s not going to enact some far-left agenda if - God forbid - something happened to John McCain. What do you envision happening?”

“Why should we trust an opportunist Democratic senator from Connecticut?” Santorum asked the hosts. “John McCain had a responsibility to this party to name a Republican as his running mate. He failed to do that, and that’s why I’m going to have my name entered into the ballot at St. Paul.”

Immediately after Santorum, the hosts welcomed Steve Schmidt, McCain’s campaign manager. “Steve,” they asked, “what’s your reaction to what we just heard?”

Steve grinned. “Well, guys, I have to be honest with you. John McCain sees his responsibility a little differently. He believes in his heart of hearts that he had a responsibility to name the best person to the job, not necessarily a Republican. Given how much is at stake in this election, John McCain believed it was necessary to name an experienced and steady leader who could unite the country. The Republican voters chose to trust his judgment and he’s decided it’s Joe Lieberman. I am sure that the delegates in Minnesota will agree with the senator.”

While Schmidt was on Fox News, McCain and Lieberman joined their friend Senator Lindsey Graham in meeting with top Congressional Republicans. In closed-door meetings, McCain and Lieberman fielded questions with a number of Republicans. One after the other, conservative voices within the party stepped forward to say they had “no doubt” that Joe Lieberman would govern well and that John McCain was committed to healing the nation.

Across the country, delegates were traveling to Minnesota for the Republican National Convention that began on Monday. They started receiving phone calls from a number of high profile names. Steve Schmidt was calling. Cindy McCain was calling. Meghan McCain was calling. Haddassah Lieberman made calls. So did her husband and John McCain himself. “Can we count on you to put our country first?” they would ask after explaining McCain’s reasoning for naming Lieberman. When they got pushback from a delegate, that delegate went on a list to be called by any number of conservatives who had volunteered to help whip delegates. Usually, these were high-profile conservatives certain that if they towed the party line now they could emerge a top contender in 2012, after McCain’s inevitable loss. Both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee were among these callers. So, too, were Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi, Fred Thompson, the former presidential candidate, Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, Eric Cantor, a top House Republican, and even the incumbent vice president, Dick Cheney.
Well, that is certainly different! It's going to be a real mind-twister of an election, methinks. Also, when Obama inevitably loses the 2008 election (it would kinda ruin the point if McCain lost!), I'm fascinated as to what kinds of changes the left will undergo in the wake of a Republican-Democrat ticket defeating Obama. Especially with the Great Recession in the background....
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Well, that is certainly different! It's going to be a real mind-twister of an election, methinks. Also, when Obama inevitably loses the 2008 election (it would kinda ruin the point if McCain lost!), I'm fascinated as to what kinds of changes the left will undergo in the wake of a Republican-Democrat ticket defeating Obama. Especially with the Great Recession in the background....

What do we think the odds of a McCain/Lieberman ticket working are? Of course, a couple of other things may need to fall in place, but the conventional wisdom is Lieberman would probably have hurt McCain, not helped. Do we think it's possible to win with Lieberman? I've gone back and forth and have both versions written -- unsure what to go with...
What do we think the odds of a McCain/Lieberman ticket working are? Of course, a couple of other things may need to fall in place, but the conventional wisdom is Lieberman would probably have hurt McCain, not helped. Do we think it's possible to win with Lieberman? I've gone back and forth and have both versions written -- unsure what to go with...

I think that it should be rocky, but I personally think it's more interesting if McCain wins. But, it should be close--a down-to-the-wire squeaker, I'd say. It really comes down to cancelling out/overcoming Obama's natural media charisma. Like JFK, Obama understood the media and how to play to it in a way that few of his time did. He also was able to harness the youth vote by playing up the "change" angle, successfully casting Clinton as a symbol of the kind of middling centrism that was dragging the Dems down. The way I see it, if McCain can figure out a way to neutralize Obama's media control and star power, then he's just another Democrat.

And there's going to be SCORES of enemies made in the process, along the right and the left. I predict a nastier Tea Party, arising against "the infection of centrism within the Republican Party" or somesuch. Also, no Obama is going to play merry hell with the Dems. People are going to walk away with mixed messages: some, that they went too far and should've played it safer with Clinton; others, that they didn't go far enough, and should have gone all-out. Who can say where things will lead?
3. The Convention.
The Convention.

"The fuck if I ever follow it."

-John McCain, 2008 Republican presidential nominee

"Alright. Let's go win this thing."

-Barack Obama, 2008 Democratic presidential nominee
There were a number of high-profile Republicans who were widely respected among conservatives who chose to stay silent during the battle over the vice presidential nomination. Among them were rising star Mike Pence, a House Republican from Indiana, and Jim DeMint, a prominent conservative senator from South Carolina. Their silence wearied the McCain team, but it also prevented Rick Santorum from gaining the kind of high-profile support needed to raise serious doubts about Lieberman’s viability at the convention.

While a hurricane barreled towards the Gulf of Mexico, much of the convention’s business was suspended. First Lady Laura Bush flew into St. Paul to make an appeal for donations to the American Red Cross. On Tuesday, September 2, 2008, the party reconvened to officially nominate McCain. They did so easily, and the chairman announced that they would choose a running mate the next day. In the meantime, Fred Thompson, Laura Bush, and George W. Bush addressed the convention. Bush appeared via satellite and drew attention for the end of his remarks. “I have had the unique pleasure of running against both John McCain and Joe Lieberman. Not only are they the best ticket to put country first,” Bush told the delegates, “they are the only ticket that can win in November. I hope you’ll join me in supporting both of them.” In what must have been a totally unimaginable announcement just weeks earlier, George W. Bush endorsed two former rivals and further helped end doubts about Lieberman’s nomination.

On Wednesday morning, the delegates met to nominate a vice president. The name of the game was 1,191 delegates. The McCain campaign had been ready with a strategy, and they were sure that they would have the votes, but they couldn’t win with 1,191. If they did, the story would be Lieberman’s near defeat and the Republican ticket would come crashing down. They needed a resounding victory in St. Paul if they were going to prove that Republicans were willing to embrace the idea of a unity ticket. Steve Schmidt was about to get the biggest test of his career.

The Republican Party had seen fights like this before, but it had been awhile. Thirty-two years earlier, Republicans convened in Kansas City where President Gerald Ford bested the conservative upstart Ronald Reagan for the presidential nomination. Now, a moderate Jewish Democrat was hoping to become the vice presidential nominee of the party that came to embrace that conservative upstart. Fights had been breaking out throughout the convention as precursors to the Lieberman showdown. McCain’s campaign had conceded to adopting the most anti-abortion platform the Republican Party had ever had. In private, McCain was bitter. “The fuck if I ever follow it,” he told Schmidt.

Yet when the gavel came down and the votes became, it soon became clear that Schmidt’s masterful whip operation was working. Santorum’s campaign was outmanned. In just a few days he had sought to compile a team capable of going toe-to-toe with the Republican nominee, a candidate who had taken a bus through New Hampshire and emerged the inevitable frontrunner. John McCain had almost literally lived through hell. As a soldier, the Vietnamese thought he was out. As a senator, he overcame scandal to emerge a champion of campaign finance reform. As a presidential candidate, he had first nearly beaten the son of a president for the nomination and then the second time emerged from his political grave to become the party’s hero. As a presidential nominee, he was not about to emerge from the convention on anyone’s terms but his own.

Santorum yielded 411 votes out of 2,380. That left Lieberman with the remaining 1,969, nearly 800 more than the number of delegates required for the nomination. The rest of the day was spent praising Lieberman and his accomplishments. Notably, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney promised to do what they could to help elect the McCain/Lieberman ticket. Rudy Giuliani also helped to rally support for Lieberman. He talked about being Mayor of New York on 9/11. “Joe Lieberman had the courage to walk away from his party when they put politics over national security. That is the kind of leader we need to serve with John McCain,” he told the crowd to raucous applause.

Perhaps even more important than Lieberman’s speech was Rick Santorum’s concession address. McCain’s team was skeptical of allowing him to address the convention, afraid it would turn into Pat Robertson’s 1992 convention speech that only further divided the party. Santorum submitted prepared remarks that McCain and Lieberman signed off on. When he got up to the podium, he stuck to them, praising McCain’s record of service. “I ran a campaign for vice president over an issue that I believe is paramount to this party’s platform. I still hold that issue to be important. The reality is this: John McCain will protect the sanctity of life. That is what matters, and that is why the Republican Party must come together, united behind Senator McCain and his vision for America.” He continued by attacking Barack Obama’s lack of experience.

Lieberman’s speech touched on the same themes that had defined his roll-out. He continued his commitment to “putting country first,” fulfilling John McCain’s vision for America and uniting a broken country. His speech began simply, “We meet tonight in the wake of a terrible storm that has hit the Gulf Coast but that hurts all of us because we are all members of our larger American family. At times like this, we set aside all that divides us, and we come together to help our fellow citizens in need. What matters is certainly not whether we are Democrats or Republicans, but that we are all Americans. The truth is, it shouldn't take a hurricane to bring us together like this.”

He took hits at Barack Obama’s lack of experience. “Senator Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead. But eloquence is no substitute for a record — not in these tough times. In the Senate he has not reached across party lines to get anything significant done, nor has he been willing to take on powerful interest groups in the Democratic Party.”

Near the end of his remarks, he encouraged Americans to “take a chance” on the ticket. “You may be thinking of voting for John McCain, but you're not sure. Some of you have never voted for a Republican before and in an ordinary election, you probably wouldn’t. But this is no ordinary election - as our ticket shows because these are not ordinary times, and John McCain is no ordinary candidate. You may not agree with John McCain on every issue, but you can always count on him to be straight with you about where he stands, and to stand for what he thinks is right regardless of politics.”

He continued, “I would not be in this fight if I did not believe that we need something bold like this ticket to move America forward. If you believe, like me, that anything is possible - that, if we just work together, America’s best days can be ahead, then let’s do this together in November and elect a ticket more concerned with country than politics. Thank you!” After his remarks, McCain joined his running mate on stage and waved to the adoring delegates.

In the wake of the Republican National Convention, the McCain/Lieberman ticket surged. McCain led Obama in all of the major polls, sometimes by as much as five or six points. The media became obsessed with the idea of a unity ticket. Barack Obama’s candidacy was no longer their obsession. To placate them, Nicolle Wallace implemented a media strategy to keep pace. Rather than hide McCain and Lieberman from the press, they were almost too available. After every event, they took questions from the press gaggle. And there were many events. McCain and Lieberman maintained an intensely active schedule.

The Obama campaign struggled to respond to the announcement of Lieberman. Initially, they had been relatively quiet and allowed the Democratic Party to issue stronger rebukes. Howard Dean, the Party Chairman, went on television to say that Joe Lieberman wasn’t a “real Democrat,” but that seemed to play into the Republican’s messaging that the Democrats were more concerned about creating policy good for the Democratic Party instead of policy good for America.

“Of course they’re going to say that about me,” Joe Lieberman said. “I really don’t care. I’m more concerned about being a real American - about being a good American.” The off-the-cuff line at a gaggle went over so well that it was adopted into Lieberman’s stump speech. For the first time during the campaign, McCain began attracting crowds the size of Obama’s at his rallies. Voters seemed excited by the idea of a unity ticket, or at least they wanted to see it in person. Neither man was as charismatic a campaigner as Obama, but it was more about the idea of their candidacy and what it represented than the candidates themselves.

“I want you to be a part of this,” McCain would tell crowds in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. “I want you to be a part of bringing this country back together. Stand up today and support us in this effort to put country first and then head to the polls in November and vote for this ticket and when you’ve done that you can go back to your homes with your heads held high and you can tell your children and your grandchildren that you rose to the challenge of today and put your country first!”
In the wake of the Republican National Convention, the McCain/Lieberman ticket surged. McCain led Obama in all of the major polls, sometimes by as much as five or six points. The media became obsessed with the idea of a unity ticket. Barack Obama’s candidacy was no longer their obsession. To placate them, Nicolle Wallace implemented a media strategy to keep pace. Rather than hide McCain and Lieberman from the press, they were almost too available. After every event, they took questions from the press gaggle. And there were many events. McCain and Lieberman maintained an intensely active schedule.

A good sign. Right out of the gate, McCain is leveraging the fact that he has a running mate that he's not actively trying to hide--that he's actually proud of--to redirect media attention to his side. And not only that, he's doing it in a positive way.

But, it's difficult to overstate the sheer popular momentum that Obama was able to tap into in '08. Even with much better media management and an effective VP, the Republicans are still facing an uphill battle against an extremely charismatic Democratic candidate. Personally, I think that McCain can still pull out a win, but it's going to be close. My money is on Obama closing the gap rapidly over the next few months and the final election being tight indeed.
The Crash.

John McCain’s announcement of Joe Lieberman and the Republican convention represented a turning point in the 2008 election. For the first time, McCain was consistently leading Barack Obama in national polls as well as individual statewide polls in key states like Florida and Ohio. The Obama campaign was worried. While David Axelrod, one of the architect’s of Obama’s rise, was certain that he’d still pull off the race, the candidate himself was concerned by McCain’s recent surge. In particular, the candidate wanted to make sure that he was ready for the first presidential debate at the end of the month.

“I have to get back on offense, and I think the debate is the perfect opportunity to do that. Let’s show him what we’ve been doing all campaign,” Obama told his staff. They agreed. The candidate began prepping for the event with practice sessions and daily briefings on the issues. He rehearsed one-liners in the car between events and tested some of them at campaign rallies and in press gaggles. If he felt the race slipping away, he didn’t let others see it. Outwardly, the candidate projected the confidence of a future president.

Then, the presidential race changed dramatically on September 15th, when Lehman Brothers announced that they were filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Dow began a downward spiral and the McCain campaign entered a crisis mode. Lieberman was campaigning in Pennsylvania and had the earliest event on the schedule that day. He was asked to maintain that the “fundamentals of the economy” were strong and not to incite too much panic about the economic situation as it would likely drive voters towards Barack Obama. On the fly, Lieberman cut the line and replaced it with a similar but more carefully-worded statement.

“We’re here in Pennsylvania today,” he told the crowd. “Pennsylvania is the heart of American manufacturing. It’s the heart of factories and workers and hardworking people trying to make an honest day’s living. What’s happening on Wall Street is going to have a big impact on our country, and that’s why we need a ticket committed not to scoring political points ahead of a reelection campaign but one that is instead focused solely on fixing that problem. But if you go around and you talk to the workers at this plant, you’re going to hear something else. You’re going to hear them say that their spirit can’t be deterred by a big bank failing. They’re going to tell you that they’re worried about putting food on the table and right now they can. They want to know their job isn’t going anywhere. Well, in a McCain/Lieberman administration it’s going to stay right here and if we can make sure that happens, then we can handle the stuff on Wall Street - you can count on that!”

Lieberman artfully struck the balance between assuring people that the problem wasn’t so dramatic they needed to change horses and reinforced the McCain/Lieberman message that these were times for experienced leadership, not change. McCain sought to replicate it later that day in Florida, saying, “I’m not going to tell you that this is going to be an easy fight. But I can promise you this: If the going gets tough, we’re going to need someone ready for the job on day one. Someone more concerned about doing right than winning reelection. Someone who is going to build a bipartisan administration that can tackle this issue.”

A week later, McCain flew back to Washington, canceling his campaign events for the foreseeable future. When asked if this amounted to some kind of formal suspension of the campaign, Nicolle Wallace assured the press that John McCain was simply “focusing on his day job - he is very much committed to winning the election this November, but first he’s been asked to negotiate a compromise on the economy.”

If McCain thought that creating a compromise would be easy, he was wrong. While it was clear that the Bush Administration and Congressional Democrats favored a bailout package, McCain was less than thrilled by the idea. After a conversation with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Lieberman, and Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain became convinced there was no other way. He convened a meeting of House Republicans and walked them through the reality of the situation and what he was hearing. “If you have personal objections to this - just as I do - then I understand your hesitance,” he told a closed-door meeting, “but we have to do this. If this economy collapses, it will spell doom for our party, but even more importantly: for our country and for the entire global economy.”

Harry Reid was on television that morning, saying that McCain’s presence was necessary on the Hill. “Look, we need this to pass, and we can’t do it without Republicans. I’m hoping John McCain can bring them on board. That’s why we need him here.” The sentiment was shared among Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. This could only pass with McCain’s help. It was an enormous gamble on the senator’s part - if it failed, the Republicans would look like they were rejecting McCain and he’d prove incompetent.

After the closed-door meeting with Republicans, McCain appeared for a meeting with top Republican leadership in an event open to the press. They talked about their ideas for the plan and McCain endorsed one of Hillary Clinton’s ideas for mortgage relief. Then, the Republicans took questions from the press. McCain looked like a leader in charge of his party. In fact, the staging made it easy to forget McCain wasn’t already president. When asked if the Republicans had the votes to pass the plan, McCain answered, “They’re counting votes still, but I like where we’re at in the process.”

By the end of the day, McCain had met individually with a number of hold outs, impressing upon them the desperate need for the Republicans to act bipartisanly to resolve the crisis. “I’m not thrilled with the package,” he said, “but it’s what we have to do.” McCain’s whipping operation was forceful, demanding that the party not squander its opportunity to win back the White House. “Preventing economic collapse is good policy and good politics,” McCain told lawmakers. “How often do we get that chance?”

That night, McCain received a phone call from John Boehner. “I’ve got the votes, John,” he said. “We’re going to run the bill in the morning.” On September 24, the House passed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 by a vote of 222-211. Two days later, the Senate passed the bill as well. That night, Barack Obama and John McCain met for their first presidential debate.

In the hours leading up to the debate, Barack Obama was nervous. He’d gone through extensive prep work, but he saw the writing on the wall. John McCain had just brought the Republican Party together and secured passage of a bill that seemed doomed to failure. It was not George W. Bush or Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid who had solved the economic crisis even though they had surely done the most work. It was not Barack Obama, who, despite his efforts, was not the poster child of the Democratic maneuvering. Instead, America perceived John McCain as the masterful negotiator who had convinced enough Republicans to put country first - just liked he had promised to do. In fact, voters had been exposed to the exact vision that McCain had promised: Congressional Democrats and Republicans coming together under his leadership to pass legislation.

Both Obama and McCain arrived for the debate with hours to spare given that the Senate had voted that morning on the legislation. Both were tired. Yet, Obama had spent weeks making sure he was ready for the debate. By contrast, McCain had barely prepped at all and failed to do a single formal run-through of the debate. His team had sought to get him to sit down, but McCain had largely refused. “Don’t waste my time with that,” he had told them.

The debate was focused on foreign policy but it began with a question about the recent events relating to the economy. McCain’s lack of preparation may have enabled him to handle the question masterfully. “I went in to Washington and did what I intend to do for the next four years. I heard from the Democrats, met with the Republicans, and got enough votes to secure an imperfect package, but it’s a plan that’s going to save our economy from further ruin. Is it exactly the plan I would have constructed? No, probably not. That’s fine. That’s what this great experiment in democracy is about. If you want a measured response to these problems - if you want someone ready to put country first and do the work needed to get our economy moving again, well, I just did it this week, and I’ll do it every week for the next four years.”

The rest of the debate, however, was a disaster for McCain. He appeared disinterested and often didn’t look at his opponent. While McCain looked grumpy, Obama looked ready. Beyond appearances, Obama landed points on substance. Barack Obama’s answers on foreign policy matters raised doubts that he was as ill-prepared as the McCain/Lieberman ticket suggested. He further landed a strong line when he went after McCain over Iraq - an issue that was still critical to many voters despite the weak economy. “You said we knew where the weapons of mass destructions were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong. I’m sure you believed what you were saying but when it comes to matters of life and death, good intentions aren’t enough.”

McCain grew angry and touted his record of military experience. “I don’t need to be lectured on matters of life and death,” McCain said. “I’m plenty familiar with war. With what war is like. I’ve served my country proudly. I’ve been held captive. I’ve had friends who didn’t come home. I have more than good intentions, Senator, I’ve been on the ground and I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Obama responded, “I’ve never questioned your patriotism, John, I’ve simply questioned the accuracy of your decisions.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It had been eight years since his last appearance on a national ticket for public office, but Joe Lieberman was campaigning like a rockstar. He wasn’t always drawing impressive crowds, but he campaigned with an energy that the campaign had greatly missed. He often appeared with Senator Lindsey Graham and local Republican politicians. In his remarks, Lieberman touted the campaign’s mantra of Country First and promised crowds that he was ready to take on the challenges facing the nation. He wasn’t a pretty face or a rockstar politician like Barack Obama, but there was a certain excitement around the idea of a bipartisan campaign - just enough excitement that it allowed Lieberman the adrenaline to continue a rigorous campaign and fundraising schedule to help the Republican ticket.

On the morning of October 1, Lieberman read the paper on the campaign bus that took him to his first stop of the day in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was his first joint rally with John since the presidential debate, and the running mates were looking forward to a tour of New Hampshire together. Polls showed that voters in New Hampshire were responding well to the idea of a unity ticket. Lieberman hoped that the enthusiasm would mean picking up the state’s four electoral votes. He knew all too well how losing the state - small as it was - had kept him from the vice presidency just eight years earlier.

The Times had a multitude of stories he should have been paying attention to. There was something to read about the financial crisis, about the campaign in which he was now playing a starring role, and the comments his opponents were making about his presence on the ticket. There was a story about how the latest polls showed McCain with an edge, even after a rocky debate performance. Yet, for all of this potential reading material, Lieberman couldn’t help but think about what would be different if he’d won that race in 2000. He would have been the vice president on 9/11 - one of the most fateful days in American history. That tragedy would likely have propelled Gore to another four years. Then, just as he was now, he’d be crisscrossing the country - as the Democratic Party’ s presidential nominee, not the vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party.

“Sir,” his aide said. “We’re here.” And with that, the daydreaming stopped. Lieberman got off the bus at Saint Anselm College where a beautiful outdoor rally had been planned to kick off the New Hampshire swing. He walked into Geisel Library and greeted McCain. It was show time.

Per usual, the candidates walked out together to triumphant music and a roaring crowd. This crowd was one of the largest the ticket had seen. “Thank you!” Lieberman exclaimed as he took to the microphone. He had just been introduced by Senator John Sununu. “It is great to be back in this state,” he told the crowd. “I hope you send my good friend John back to Washington, and I hope you rise to the challenge that John McCain issued when he named me as his running mate a month ago. He dared this country to do something it hasn’t done since the Civil War. He dared the American voters to put aside political technicalities and put country first. I hope you will do that this election!”

When the rally was over, McCain and Lieberman worked the rope line, shaking hands with adoring college students and those that had traveled to campus to get a chance to meet the two of them. “It was really one of the oddest things,” remarked Nicolle Wallace later observed. “The country was buying the idea of a unity ticket, and suddenly two old white men were being treated like superstars. The people wanted them, and they rose to the challenge.”

After the Saint Anselm event, the ticket went north for a rally in Concord and then closed the day with an event at the University of New Hampshire. Everywhere they went, they heard a familiar refrain: people were willing to give them a shot to fix Washington. Yet, the ticket was still struggling to cement its lead. While Americans were optimistic about their ability to heal partisan divisions, they questioned McCain and Lieberman’s Iraq policy. The ticket gave no indication that they would move the country beyond the vastly unpopular war. Further, while many appreciated McCain’s success in passing TARP, they were hesitant to give the Republicans another four years after it ended in such economic turmoil. It was a change year, and Barack Obama was providing that message.

The next day, Joe Lieberman woke up in St. Louis, Missouri. It was his turn to represent the McCain/Lieberman ticket on the national stage. He was going to face off with Joe Biden, a more charismatic senator who the other Joe had come to know well in the U.S. Senate. When the lights went on at Washington University, Gwen Ifill invited both Joes to the stage. Confident in his prep work, Lieberman strutted onto the stage, waved to the audience, and shook Biden’s hand. “Good to see you, Joe!” he said with a smile and a laugh. Then, he moved to his podium.

In his opening statement, Lieberman pushed Biden onto defense: “The reality is this, Gwen. You have two Democrats on this stage. One of them is devoted to putting country first. The other is running to advance the interests of a particular party. You have someone who is going to be a partner to their running mate - who brings a different perspective to make sure all Americans are considered as policy gets made, and you have another candidate who is here to add weight to a ticket that sorely needs it. Well, I say you should have weight on both halves of the ticket. You need a ticket who knows what to do and is focused on bringing the country together. That’s what John and I offer.”

Biden, a skilled debater, was thrown off his game. He smiled and laughed, said that Lieberman’s attacks were unfair, and assured the American people that Barack Obama knew what he was doing. “He may have fewer years in Washington than John McCain does, but he’s more in touch with what the American people want. He’s heard their reservations about this disastrous war in Iraq. He’s heard their complaints about the state of the economy. Barack Obama may not have as many years in the Senate, but he has the vision to change this nation and inspire us to believe in our future.”

A vice presidential debate does not have much of an effect unless one candidate is a total disaster. However, Lieberman used his time on the debate stage to quell concerns among Republicans. He repeated his belief in the “McCain agenda” and said he would respect the party that nominated him while seeking to bring the country together. Two days after both senators left the stage, the polls showed a dead heat. McCain was leading in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Carolina - states that Obama’s campaign had been making headway in. Obama, however, held leads in New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado - states that would be enough to secure his victory. As Election Day approached, the race was simply too close to call.
Just to clarify my intentions with this timeline/future projects.

  • Country First is going to run through the conclusion of the 2008 election and then end. Anticipate that happening this week.
  • Passkey Down will then return for several more updates before concluding.
  • I will have a new project - tentatively titled A Cause That Binds - that will focus on themes of partisanship and division and have a POD in the 1988 presidential election. That project will almost certainly debut on July 15, 2019.
Thanks y'all!
The End.

In the final weeks of the campaign, McCain and Lieberman crisscrossed the nation. There were stops in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. Surrogates like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty also stepped up their appearances. On the other side, the Democrats came with force. Suddenly, the election they had been assured of seemed to be drifting further and further away from them. An anxious Hillary Clinton waited with anticipation at the prospects of cruising to the White House in 2012, but publicly she was on the campaign trail as much as Obama and Biden were. “We cannot afford to lose this election,” she cried. “No way! No how! No McCain!” It brought audiences to their feet every time and privately Democratic insiders were afraid they had made a terrible, terrible mistake in not nominating her.

The final two debates were wins for Barack Obama that helped him regain momentum, but McCain only thrived in the underdog status. He was now trailing by two or three points nationally and the electoral map suggested that Obama would win with 291 electoral votes. It was a comfortable victory, but if McCain picked off just two more states, he was all but assured victory. It seemed like the Republican primaries all over again, when John McCain drove his bus into New Hampshire and convinced voters one-by-one that it was worth giving him a chance. McCain became convinced that victory was going to be his.

There was reason to hope. The final 10 days of the campaign were filled with big moments that helped increase McCain’s standing. When a woman at a town hall event told Joe Lieberman she couldn’t vote for Barack Obama because he was a “Muslim A-rab,” Lieberman took the microphone from her. “I’m sorry ma’am, but that’s just not true. John and I are serious about bringing this country together again - about putting it first - and I just have to stop you right there. Barack Obama and I disagree about a lot of issues, but I’m not going to stand here and let someone spread lies about him. I’m sorry, I just can’t do it. Who’s next?” It was a moment that softened Lieberman’s attack dog status and helped Americans see the power of the bipartisan ticket and what it could do for civil discourse in American politics - something that seemed to be sorely lacking.

The next day, when he appeared on Meet the Press, former vice president Al Gore defended his choice of Lieberman as a running mate and pointed to the video of the day before. “I picked Joe Lieberman because he was a man of principle and character. I think that’s why John McCain picked him. Of course, I’m going to vote for Barack Obama, but let’s not kid ourselves: Joe Lieberman will make a fine vice president if that happens.” Gore was trying to stand strong in the face of attacks from fellow Democrats that he had given rise to Lieberman’s political star power, but instead, it sounded like a quasi-endorsement of the bipartisan ticket.

Those last seven days brought McCain and Lieberman to New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa. They were determined to get across the finish line and come out on top, but if they didn’t, they were both satisfied with the country they had left behind. They had waged a principled campaign that focused on the issues and healing a divided America. With the Iraq War raging abroad and the markets crashing at home, it was a precarious time for the United States. They had done their part, they felt, to make sure she emerged from the election intact.

On election morning, John McCain cast his vote in Arizona and Barack Obama did the same thing in Illinois. It was going to be a historic election no matter what happened and both candidates were ready to accept the possibilities. Each privately believed he would win but remained cautious - careful to make sure they weren’t disappointed when the results came in.

The crucial calls began just before 10:00. Florida was too close to call. Ohio was too close to call. But by 9:45, NBC News was making some critical announcements. “Right now, we are able to call Missouri for Senator John McCain. This was a must-win for McCain and an extra slice of pie for Barack Obama, but the fact that John McCain can rely on its 11 electoral votes is important for the McCain campaign tonight.” A few minutes later, Williams had another announcement: “Indiana and its 11 electoral votes are going for John McCain. Again, this is a traditionally red state that Barack Obama believed he might be able to win. That is not the case tonight. It will go for the bipartisan McCain/Lieberman ticket. Where else are we watching? Ohio, Virginia, and Florida - three crucial states - and all of them currently showing the McCain/Lieberman ticket in the lead.”

Then, at 10:15, another critical call: “We can now project that North Carolina and its 15 electoral votes will go to John McCain and Joe Lieberman - the bipartisan ticket that now seems to have the White House within striking distance,” Brian Williams declared before tossing it over to Chuck Todd.

“That’s right Brian. Let’s look at these numbers. With North Carolina on his side, John McCain is at 178 electoral votes. Barack Obama, the candidate most predicted would run away with this election, is sitting at only 180 votes. Even if you give him California’s 55, Oregon’s 7, Washington’s 11, and Hawaii’s 4 - states we’re pretty sure will go that direction - you’re going to see him at 257 votes. That’s still shy of the necessary 270 electoral votes he needs to win. There has to be some jubilation for the McCain campaign right now.”

Then, Chuck was interrupted. “Chuck, I hate to do this, but I have to do this. NBC News is ready with a monumental call - a call that might decide this whole election. Right now we can tell you that John McCain, Senator from Arizona, is projected to win the state of Florida and its 27 electoral votes. This is an enormous victory for the Senator who was able to make inroads with older Jewish voters with his selection of Joe Lieberman as a running mate. That puts John McCain at 205 electoral votes and Barack Obama at only 180 electoral votes.”

The McCain campaign knew that they still had to win most of the remaining states to take the election, but it was certainly possible. Internally, McCain was confident he was going to win the election. After all, he had come so close, outperformed so many expectations. Surely, this was a sign of an inevitable march towards victory. In Chicago, however, the Democrats were confident. Their data told them that they’d take all 257 electoral votes Chuck Todd had predicted and then some - probably winning Nevada and either Ohio or Virginia. No matter which one it was, they were guaranteed the White House.

By 10:30, McCain’s luck was already running out. “We can now call Ohio, and its 20 electoral votes, for Illinois Senator Barack Obama - an important win for the senator that almost guarantees him the White House. John McCain’s path to 270 just got a lot more complicated.” Eight minutes later, there was another call. This time, it was Virginia and it was going blue. That put Barack Obama at 213 electoral votes and John McCain at 205.

At 10:52, NBC News called Iowa and its 7 electoral votes for the Obama/Biden campaign. It gave him 220 electoral votes. With just California alone, he would have enough electoral votes to become the 44th president and the nation’s first African-American to hold that office. When the western polls closed at 11:00, NBC News made the election official. “And now a historic projection. Barack Obama, the Senator from Illinois, has won California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii, and will become the next President of the United States. He defeats a bipartisan ticket of senators John McCain of Arizona, and Joe Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, who ran a unified campaign. No matter who you voted for, this is a major milestone in the history of the United States. Just 150 years after the Constitution abolished slavery and only 40 since the Civil Rights Act, voters have chosen the nation’s first African-American president: Barack Obama.”

In just half an hour, McCain had gone from the cusp of victory to a certain defeat. He phoned Obama and offered his concession. Then, he took the stage in Arizona: “A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama — to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.

“In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.”

Then, it was over. John McCain and Joe Lieberman embraced and waved to the crowd. For a brief moment that night and for many weeks before, it seemed that their wild idea to unite the country might just work. But now it was known that it had not been enough. America wanted change and it had chosen its vessel: Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president.

In the weeks after the election, Steve Schmidt wondered if he could have done anything differently to get McCain across the finish line. Establishment Republicans pointed to how much closer the election had been closer than they had predicted, and they insisted that if McCain had just picked a normal Republican like Mitt Romney, he could probably have sealed the deal in states like Ohio and Virginia. Schmidt knew better. The reason McCain had been competitive in the first place was that he had chosen a game-changing pick. It was a gamble - one that was typical of the Vietnam hero. Now, however, Schmidt wondered what could have happened if he had found a game-changing pick who could have rallied the base. He agonized over the defeat and flipped through his notes. What more could have been done? And then he found it. The name and number of his back-up. If everything had gone wrong with Lieberman, he was ready with a different kind of game change. He picked up his phone and dialed the number.

“Hi, this is Sarah.”
This is a great read.

Can’t help but feel sorry for McCain when reading that the ending was Schmidt probably wondering what things would be like if McCain had picked Palin. It seems that McCain was not meant to win in 2008 and that his road to defeat would begin with a “game-changing” running mate.
This is a great read.

Can’t help but feel sorry for McCain when reading that the ending was Schmidt probably wondering what things would be like if McCain had picked Palin. It seems that McCain was not meant to win in 2008 and that his road to defeat would begin with a “game-changing” running mate.

I think McCain’s defeat was inevitable - no matter what. And that’s what I hoped to convey with this timeline.
I will have a new project - tentatively titled A Cause That Binds - that will focus on themes of partisanship and division and have a POD in the 1988 presidential election. That project will almost certainly debut on July 15, 2019

Thank you for the birthday present in advance! Very much enjoying your timelines. Well written, not open ended to infinity, nice snapshots of elections and close consequences and unlike too many timelines you have an actual point and themes you’re exploring.
I think McCain’s defeat was inevitable - no matter what. And that’s what I hoped to convey with this timeline.

I don't agree, I do think a narrow set of highly unlikely circumstances could have led to his victory. The problem the Republicans had in 2008 was that the Republican brand name was at a pretty low ebb. The only way for them to win would have been to nominate McCain and then let him run almost as a pseudo independent (picking Lieberman as his VP is a key part of that strategy) with the party's base swallowing their pride and supporting him to the hilt no matter what.

The problem is the party's base was lukewarm on McCain to begin with (and still is to this day) and giving him the freedom to run the kind of campaign he need while providing him with the support he needed is probably too much to ask.
I don't agree, I do think a narrow set of highly unlikely circumstances could have led to his victory. The problem the Republicans had in 2008 was that the Republican brand name was at a pretty low ebb. The only way for them to win would have been to nominate McCain and then let him run almost as a pseudo independent (picking Lieberman as his VP is a key part of that strategy) with the party's base swallowing their pride and supporting him to the hilt no matter what.

The problem is the party's base was lukewarm on McCain to begin with (and still is to this day) and giving him the freedom to run the kind of campaign he need while providing him with the support he needed is probably too much to ask.

I guess I should have worded it differently. With a POD this late, significant changes would have to happen - bordering on the implausible. Note that in addition to Lieberman, McCain also handles the economy significantly better and is central to Congressional negotiation. I still couldn’t see that being enough to get to 270.