Sunday, October 14, 2007

What if Hillary Clinton Wins?

Much of the commentary among Democrats about Hillary Clinton's candidacy has revolved around the likelihood of her losing the general election. Why, many Democrats ask, should we nominate someone whom so many swing voters have (unfairly, to a very large degree) come to distrust? Since one of the things that Democrats believe they have going for them next year is the lack of passion on the Right -- with fundraising tilted strongly toward the Democrats for the first time in memory and no Republican presidential candidates looking particularly strong -- why nominate the one person who is sure to rile up the sleeping Republican base? Why miss a chance to move past the "politics of personal destruction" by nominating a candidate who is sure to invite more of the same?

Some of those questions contain a ring of truth, although it is easy to overstate the case against Clinton. If there is concern about an attack machine, after all, it is easier to imagine that machine being re-tooled against another Democrat (John "Breck Girl" Edwards, Barack Hussein Obama) than simply being dismantled or moth-balled should Hillary Clinton go away. Still, there are nuanced arguments about these questions in both directions that I am willing to set aside for the time being.

My concern is not with whether Hillary Clinton would lose the election but with what would happen if she wins. As a liberal and a Democrat, I'm prepared to say that a new Clinton presidency could be not only a colossal failure but a failure that would unfairly tarnish liberals and Democrats for years to come.

Both Clintons have made a career out of distancing themselves from the liberals in their party. (Remember Clinton/Gore's "New Democrat" commercials in '92, bragging about being pro-death penalty, etc.?) After the 2004 election, when analysts were fooled by the supposed "values voters" gap in the exit polls, Hillary Clinton not only began to change her position (or at least her spin) on abortion but even helped intervene to push the pro-choice candidate for Rick Santorum's Senate seat in Pennsylvania out of the Democratic primary to clear the path for Robert Casey, an anti-choice Democrat. This was in a race for a seat with one of the most vulnerable of all Republican incumbents, so the argument that Democrats needed to resist the urge to enforce ideological purity in the name of winning was especially weak.

In any event, the idea that Hillary Clinton is anything but a right-leaning centrist strikes me as being removed from reality-based thinking. (It is possible to be simultaneously a partisan Democrat and a non-liberal. Look at Joe Lieberman pre-2006.) For reasons that are completely beyond me, though, the Clintons are thought of as liberals by the general public. Anything they do, therefore, is associated with liberals. Even if the particular choice that they make is to triangulate on an issue -- or simply to adopt the conservative position -- the calculus remains that "a Clinton did it, so that's what liberals do."

Now that Clinton is leading in the national polls, we are starting to see how she will act as president. Her efforts to straddle issues related to the Iraq war (and her latest obviously strategic vote about the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) are, I fear, just the beginning. As a second President Clinton becomes associated with policies that fail, the spin will be that "liberal Democrats can't govern." Whether we can or cannot, what the Clintons do is not proof of that proposition either way. More importantly, her policies are likely to fail, because they seem not to be driven by a vision of sound policy or wise governance but simply by a gut feeling of how to win elections. We've all lived through enough of that.

-- posted by Neil H. Buchanan

23 comments:

Michael C. Dorf said...

I agree with Neil's characterization of both Bill and Hillary Clinton as right-leaning centrists, at least on domestic policy. Bill Clinton's major accomplishments included ending the federal anti-poverty commitment and substantial curtailment of federal habeas corpus for state prisoners. Internationally, he was a liberal interventionist, although not always (Rwanda) and in the most notable instance (Kosovo) pretty clearly in violation of international law (but with moral justification). Neil raises an interesting question as to why the Clinton Presidency is remembered more for its liberal failures (attempts at universal health care and eliminating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the military) than by its conservative successes. But I think I disagree with Neil's suggestion that the policies of a right-leaning centrist triangulator are likely to be regarded as failures. Don't most people now look back on the peace and prosperity of 90s with nostalgic fondness---and if they bother to connect those good times with policy, aren't they likely to credit Clinton's fiscal conservatism? Or am I being too reality-based?

Paul said...

I certainly rank Bill Clinton as one of our better Presidents and mostly for his fiscal policy. I don't think you can fairly label that policy "conservative," however. Or actually, I DO think you can fairly label it conservative, but I don't think it is what most people associate with conservatives. Clinton took a tax more, spend less approach, that if stuck to by Bush could have ultimately resulted in tax less, spend less. Clinton was both conservative and responsible.

I see nothing of the leadership qualities of Bill Clinton in his wife, however. While I agree that she is best described as a right-leaning centrist Democrat, it is not for the same reason as her husband. I agree almost completely with Neil's characterization of her motives and policies. The problem is that while both Clinton's can be considered right-leaning centrists, they are not right-leaning on the same issues that made Bill Clinton a huge success.

It is fairly clear that Hillary will tax more (good), but also attempt to spend more - especially in the area of Health Care (that was always her issue and Bill is lucky that "his" initiatives failed early in his Presidency or I doubt very much we would have seen the fiscally responsible government he oversaw). She is also notably conservative on several issues that I think you can fairly describe Bill as a liberal on - speech and executive power stand out.

I am frankly as concerned about a Hillary presidency as I am about another Republican one. If she does get the nomination, I'll either be not voting for President (e.g. voting Libertarian) or I'll vote for a less-offensive Republican.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Paul raises the issue of Bill Clinton's fiscal policies, describing them as both conservative and responsible. As fiscal policy is the area in which I have done the most academic and policy work, I think I'll use this as an opportunity to post on DoL in the near future on the fiscal policies of Reagan, the Bushes, and Clinton.

As to Mike's disagreement with my claim that Hillary Clinton's policies are likely to be regarded as failures, he mischaracterizes my argument by suggesting that I said that "the policies of a right-leaning centrist triangulator are likely to be regarded as failures." I don't know whether *every* right-leaning centrist triangulator's policies would be viewed as failures, but I'm willing to predict that President H. Clinton's would be. Like Paul, though I suspect for different reasons, I think that Hillary would back some really bad version of health care reform; and she is unlikely to do anything good about Iraq. If that's correct, then she'll be remembered as a liberal who left two big messes even more screwed up than when she took office.

Nostalgia for Bill Clinton is, in my opinion, mostly nostalgia for someone who seemed competent; and the easiest things to point to are "balanced budgets" as proof of that -- even if they prove no such thing.

Douglas said...

Great post, especially because I continue to wonder why Hillary has (so far) easily launched to the top of a relatively strong set of democratic candidates.

And yet, despite my anti-Clinton instincts, I think it is far, far too early to assume that Hillary will be a failed president. A lot will depend on many factors that she cannot control.

Think back, for instance, to Bill's presidency. It started on a very ugly trajectory and led to the Republicans taking control of Congress in 1994. But that very Republican success help Bill hit his stride. Also, the Rs had no one new to go up against Bill in 1996.

Or, go back to the first Bush. He was riding high after Gulf War 1, but then domestic issues and Ross Perrot made him seem out of touch. Indeed, were it not for Perrot, he might have won in 1992 and had a second term that benefitted from improved economic cycles.

The sad broader reality is that both parties for more than 15 years have been run by politicians better at winning elections than at governing. I'm not confident Hillary will change this reality, but what worries me more is that most voters do not seem to care.

Michael C. Dorf said...

The reason I attributed to Neil the view that H. Clinton would fail BECAUSE she's a right-leaning centrist triangulator is that I read him to say that W.J. Clinton's was a failed presidency because that's what he was. But if that's not the reasoning, then I guess I am less confident than Neil that H. Clinton would be an unsuccessful President. Much depends on how we measure success, and even assuming a common metric, I agree with douglas that there's a great deal of luck involved. Of course, utter lack of principle and gross incompetence will swamp luck, as our current administration shows.

heathu said...

I'm straying off the original topic here, but I can't help but wonder why Dorf thought the Kosovo intervetion was "pretty clearly in violation of international law." Couldn't it have been lawful as it's purpose was to stop ongoing genocide? (See fellow Findlaw Writ Columnist Julie Hilden's October 26, 2004 column, "Foreign Policy And The Election:
What Are the Candidates' Views on Pre-Emptive War? And When Should Such a War Be Waged?")

Michael C. Dorf said...

In response to Heathu, there is no current international law norm justifying use of armed force to stop genocide or the like. Some people argue that there should be such a norm, and some others say that such a norm is emerging, but neither the UN Charter nor the other leading authorities yet recognizes such a norm. I cautiously favor recognizing such a norm because I think (as I indicated) that humanitarian intervention is morally justified in some cases, but I'm cautious because the norm could be invoked pretextually.

Hillary said...

I'd like to throw a different argument all together into the ring:

That any person of a minority race, ethnicity, or gender, no matter how bad their policies are, will ultimately move our country forward with respect to tolerance and diversity.

I used to say that no president could enact enough damage in 4 or even 8 years of policy making to balance or outweigh the social benefits of having a woman or minority run the country. I've also said that a bad president will be voted out of office in 4 years, so chances of a bad president having 8 years to run the country are slim, thus, again, the benefit of having a minority or woman rule our country outweigh the detriments of any policy they enact. And that a really bad president will have the Congress flip sides within 2 years to make that President a lame duck. That said, I will say that Bush II has tested (and possibly defeated) all of these asserted assumptions.

Despite the fact that the Bush II presidency challenges my assumptions, I will still posit that the social good that could come of a minority or woman leading the country could very well outweigh any problematic policies they would seek to enact. For these reasons, even though they might not make the the best policy decisions (which has yet to be decided), I'd love to see a Hillary/Obama ticket.

Oh, yeah...having a Hillary in the White House isn't bad for my name, either. :)

Carl said...

any person of a minority race, ethnicity, or gender, no matter how bad their policies are, will ultimately move our country forward with respect to tolerance and diversity

I'm not so sure about this. If such a president is completely inept, it will give the racists and sexists in our society fodder to argue that people of a certain race or gender are not fit to govern after all. This may even affect the attitudes of people who were prepared to "wait and see."

In addition, policies favored by such presidents may further inflame racial tensions within the country. The Dinkens administration in NY was, I'd argue, beset by both these problems.

That being said, I don't think an Obama or Clinton Administration would be completely inept and would probably be good for the reasons you suggest. It's possible, however, that those reasons for voting for either of them may be outweighed by other considerations.

Hillary said...

Carl,

I agree with you completely.

Ironically, when I came up with this idea, there weren't any minority or women Democratic candidates, so I was thinking of Republicans such as Colin Powell and Elizabeth Dole and whether I would have considered voting for either of them in the 2004 elections had President Bush II lost the elections. Since my feel is that most Liberals are less likely to believe racist or gender based stereotypes about ineptitude, I wasn't concerned with whether people lost faith in the Republican party.

A minority Republican candidate (provided the policies weren't undoable in a short amount of time) was a win-win. Either the Republicans proffered an adept candidate, which moved racial and/or gender tensions forward toward acceptance of diversity (part of the liberal agenda) or they proffered an inept candidate, which might set racial and/or gender tensions back some, but would put Democrats back in power, and could prioritize this issue.

Carl said...

Ironically, when I came up with this idea, there weren't any minority or women Democratic candidates

Understood. I used to think our first woman or minority president would almost certainly be a Republican. I can imagine Democrats crossing party lines to vote for the likes of Powell or Dole. I cannot see many Republicans lining up to vote for Obama or Clinton. Perhaps if Giuliani gets the Republican nod and some third party spoiler comes in to claim the votes of social conservatives, cross-over appeal won't matter that much.

Paul said...

Hillary,
I have to assume then that you feel Justice Thomas is a good person - on the whole - to have on the bench? Or does your balancing apply only to Presidents? Would then, an Allen Keyes presidency be a good thing?

Sobek said...

Carl said: "I cannot see many Republicans lining up to vote for Obama or Clinton."

Clinton is right out. She is one of the most hated people in America, regardless of how many people also love her. Obama I'm not so sure. He strikes me as the least objectionable of the Democrat slate, but I have a nagging suspicion that it's because he doesn't say much of substance, so it's hard to object. After all, who could complain about "the politics of hope" (even if no one is exactly sure what that even means)?

Hillary: maybe or maybe not. Remember the Oreos and epithets that were hurled at Michael Steele. Conservative Black Republicans bring out a special kind of invective from Democrats.

Carl said...

Conservative Black Republicans bring out a special kind of invective from Democrats.


Point taken, Sobek. They also tend to be particularly unpopular with other black people.

I do think, however, that at least a moderate black Republican would have greater cross-over appeal than a moderate black Democrat in part because Democrats like Hillary (the poster, not the candidate) are more likely than Republicans to believe there is important symbolic value in the race or gender of a candidate that outweighs their objections to the candidate's substantive views.

This is not to say that I think Republicans won't vote for women or minorities - I find the idea that Republicans are more racist or sexist than Democrats to be ridiculous - but I do think that they are not as likely to vote for a candidate because of the candidate's race or gender even when they disagree with their other views.

Of course, all this assumes that swing-voters are ideologically committed to one party or the other. If this were true, I guess they wouldn't be swing voters after all. So perhaps I should reformulate my view: our first black or female president is likely to be a moderate. This, of course, is even less interesting and hardly worth saying to begin with.

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