Iowa Then and Now

By Mike Dorf

Just under four years ago, Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa chose among Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama.  At the time--and for several of the ensuing months--it appeared that the crucial choice was between Clinton and Obama.  In retrospect, it looks like the key choice was between, on the one hand, Clinton or Obama, and on the other hand, Edwards.  Had Edwards' marital infidelity and possible criminal violation of election laws surfaced after he had secured the nomination but too late to change the Democratic nominee, that might have been enough to turn the election over to Republican John McCain.

Meanwhile, the choice between Clinton and Obama probably didn't matter much, and almost certainly didn't matter as much as those of us who cared about it thought at the time.  Even in 2008 the policy differences between Clinton and Obama were quite small, and on the two most identifiable issues, Obama has ended up adopting the views that Clinton took.

1) During the primary campaign, Obama said he opposed including an insurance mandate in his universal health care proposal, while Clinton favored such a mandate.  Obama eventually accepted the mandate and, as we know, that could end up resulting in the invalidation of the law that was enacted.

2) Obama played better to the anti-Iraq-War portion of the Democratic electorate because of his early opposition to the War, but by 2008 it was reasonably clear that any Democratic President would seek to draw down U.S. troop levels.  Still, other things being equal, more hawkish Democrats supported Clinton, with more dovish ones supporting Obama.  In office, Obama has indeed drawn down in Iraq, as Clinton likely would have, and has otherwise conducted a foreign policy that is virtually indistinguishable from the foreign policy Clinton would have conducted--as we know from the fact that Clinton, as Secretary of State, is the person conducting much of the Obama foreign policy.

Some 2008 Obama supporters (including yours truly) have sometimes wondered whether we would have been better off with Clinton because she would have been tougher in standing up to Republicans.  During the primaries, some Clinton supporters (e.g., Paul Krugman) warned that Obama's post-partisan stance was dangerously misguided in a political world in which Republicans treat Democratic pleas for unity as weakness.  Were they right?

Maybe, but it's hard to tell.  Much of Obama's weakness has taken the form of triangulation, guided by policy advice from the veterans of the Bill Clinton Administration that Obama appointed.  It's difficult to imagine that a Hillary Clinton Administration would have relied on different people.  Still, to the extent that Obama is temperamentally inclined to compromise where (Hillary) Clinton is more inclined to confrontation, perhaps Clinton would have gotten better deals from the Republicans--or not wasted time seeking deals with implacable foes.

In any event, while I cannot speak for other 2008 Obama supporters, for many (including yours truly, again) the reason to support Obama over Clinton was the sense that Obama was more electable, in light of the high negatives that Clinton inspired.  Even at the time, that was a gamble.  Would the country really be more receptive to an African-American candidate with whom it was largely unfamiliar than to a former First Lady that many people irrationally associated with all sorts of negativity?  In retrospect, the electability question was probably irrelevant: Once Lehman went under and the economy tanked on a Republican President's watch, it was pretty clear that any Democrat not in the midst of a sex scandal was going to win in 2008.

What about tomorrow's Iowa Republican caucuses?  Republican conservatives are understandably uneasy about voting for Romney because they think that his adoption of socially conservative (and other conservative) positions after governing Massachusetts as a socially liberal pragmatist shows him to be an opportunist who could as easily abandon his conservatism once he becomes President.  Thus, we had the magnificent spectacle of one after another non-Romney candidate rise to the top of the field over the last half a year: Bachmann, then Perry, then Cain, then Gingrich, then Paul, and perhaps now Santorum.  The rise of each is easy to explain: Most Republicans were uncomfortable with the prospect of Romney as their nominee.  The fall (so far) of each non-Romney candidate is also easy to explain: They are all terribly flawed candidates.  Romney can win the general.  It's very doubtful that (absent a new spike in unemployment or some other catastrophe), any of these others can.

So Republican caucus-goers and primary voters now face a choice that is an inversion of the choice Democrats faced four years ago.  Then we had three candidates with largely indistinguishable positions fighting about who was more electable based on their respective personalities.  Republicans now must choose between an electable but perhaps untrustworthy Romney and a more trustworthy but electability-challenged set of alternatives: Perry (difficulty sounding like an adult human with the capacity for speech and thought); Gingrich (difficulty sounding like an adult human with the capacity for not being a total dick); Paul (too libertarian on some issues and too isolationist for most Republicans, too much of a racist recent past for the general electorate); and Santorum (too boring for everybody).

I'd like to say I know whom to root for in this game, but I face the opposite of the problem the Republicans face: If a Republican wins, I'd like it to be Romney (or Huntsman, or as Jon Stewart dubbed him, "Mitt Romney without the name recognition"), because I think he'd be the least bad and possibly even okay in the way that Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush were.  But I'd rather that Obama win, so from that perspective, the least electable Republican is the best opponent.

Fortunately, my rooting for one or another Republican will have no impact on the outcome.  However, as with sporting events, politics is more interesting when one feels he has a stake in the outcome.  Thus, for now, I'm rooting for the underdog, whoever that turns out to be.