WHAT IF 2000 HAD GONE DIFFERENTLY?….Usually, when politicos engage in thought experiments about the 2000 race turning out differently, it’s to speculate on the successes of a Gore administration. But Ramesh Ponnuru pondered a different question:

I wonder what would have happened if McCain had won the nomination in 2000. I think he would probably have won the general election. He wouldn’t have cut taxes as much as Bush, but he would have prosecuted the Iraq war better and left the Republican party in better shape. Would he have nominated judges of the caliber of John Roberts and Samuel Alito? I’m not sure.

Andy McCarthy agrees that McCain may have been more effective in prosecuting a war in Iraq, but adds, “[W]ould he have invaded Iraq in the first place? I’d bet no. I realize he was very supportive of the Bush policy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the policy he’d have made if he’d been president.”

I had the same reaction to all of this as Yglesias: “My impression of McCain is that though he was a believer in restraint back in the 1980s, that by 2000 he was the neocon in the race. There was a reason, after all, why Bill Kristol and so forth were supporting him and it wasn’t Kristol’s commitment to campaign finance reform.”

Exactly. Back in 2000, the neocons weren’t exactly enthusiastic Bush backers. They didn’t love his father; they weren’t enamored with the then-governor’s foreign policy team (Condi Rice?); and to hear him on the stump, he was for “humility” and against “nation building.” McCain was the neocon; Bush was the neophyte.

As for post-election, McCain wasn’t a cheerleader for the war in 2002 and 2003 out of party loyalty; he actually believed his rhetoric. (It included now-foolish pre-invasion predictions such as, “I believe that the success will be fairly easy”; “We’re not going to have a bloodletting of trading American bodies for Iraqi bodies”; and “We will win this conflict. We will win it easily.”)

I suppose whether a McCain administration would have been less inept in executing a war policy depends in part on your position on the “incompetence dodge,” but given what we know, it seems unlikely a President McCain would have showed restraint towards Iraq.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.