It Matters Why and How a President Disappoints Her Supporters

by Neil H. Buchanan

No president has ever lived up to the hopes and expectations of his supporters.  Even people who are clear-eyed realists cannot help but indulge in a bit of excessive optimism during an election campaign, fueled by the energy of supporting one candidate over another as well as the sense that elections can sometimes be transformative.

The hard reality is that nothing ever goes as well as people hope it will.  Even so, it matters a great deal why and how a president ends up disappointing his or her supporters.  In Hillary Clinton's case, it matters even more, because so many people who will vote for her this year nonetheless say that they are worried about whether she is truly committed to the issues in which they believe.

In a recent column, I argued that any future disappointments during a Clinton Administration will not be due to a "mandate problem."  That is, contrary to some recent hand-wringing among liberals, it does not matter whether Clinton can claim an electoral mandate -- or the right kind of mandate -- from November's election results.  When she wins, Republicans will oppose her at every turn, ignoring any claims of a mandate.

I also pointed out, however, that there are three different reasons that Clinton might do things as president that will disappoint people who currently support her:
"She might not really be committed to [her] platform at all.  Or she might be weakly committed to it but too willing to compromise without expending much effort to get a better outcome.  Or she might drive a hard bargain but ultimately decide that she cannot do better than achieve a half-measure, which is better than nothing at all."
Consider the first possibility.  Clinton's history (which is, of course, inextricably intertwined with her husband's successful campaigns for president in 1992 and 1996) gives liberals and progressives like me plenty of reason for concern.  Although the Bernie-or-bust crowd badly misplayed their hand at the Democratic convention last month, their reading of Clinton's past positions provided valid reason for concern.

The Clintons, after all, embodied the center-right politics of New Democrats in the eighties and nineties.  Bill Clinton embraced the idea that Democrats could only be competitive by abandoning liberalism, and he thus announced that "the era of big government is over," carried through with a plan to end welfare as we know it, and so on.

Even facing an easy reelection campaign in 1996, Clinton signed multiple pieces of landmark legislation that moved the country in the wrong direction, on topics ranging from immigration to the death penalty.  And even after he was a lame duck, he supported the disastrous financial deregulation bill in 1999 that set the stage for the economic meltdown that began on Wall Street in 2008.

Does that mean that President Hillary Clinton will decide to return to those policies after her election?  I continue to believe that she has learned important lessons from her own mistakes and those of her husband's administration.  Even a big fan of neoliberal deregulation, after all, would have to look at the evidence of the post-1999 era and be at least a bit chastened.

More to the point, the political landscape has changed radically in the last twenty-four years.  To prove that a Democrat could be tough on crime, Bill Clinton made a big show of leaving the 1992 campaign trail to preside over the execution of a man with an IQ of 70.  He also had the defining "Sister Souljah moment."  He was hostile to unions, embraced fiscal conservatism, and on and on.

Maybe Hillary Clinton believes that one or more of those policy views and political strategies are still substantively defensible, but I strongly doubt it.  Even if she did, however, why would she act on such beliefs, if she has an ounce of political sense (which she clearly does)?

The public now strongly supports liberal positions on economics (minimum wage increases, addressing inequality through tax increases on the rich, and so on), social issues (same-sex marriage, abortion), and existential matters like the environment.  Even public opinion on the death penalty has moved decidedly to the left.

It is true that Clinton will be hearing frequently from people who never learned anything from the nineties, as well as others whose political fortunes are tied up in red-state politics.  Even before this year's election is over, my prediction is coming true that some Democratic senators who will be up for reelection in 2018 will push Clinton not to be "too liberal."

This does mean that Clinton will almost certainly shade some issues in ways that will disappoint people like me.  I suspect, for example, that Clinton will make some noises about "taming our monstrous budget deficits."  More generally, she will surely be pushed by red-state senators to trim her sails.

After all, President Obama's bad decision to create the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission was in large part forced by former North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, who was the Budget Committee chair at the time.  One of the vulnerable senators in 2018 is also from North Dakota, and others are from states like Missouri and West Virginia.  And with the possibility that faux-Democrat Evan Bayh will return to the Senate, there will be plenty of voices in Clinton's ear pushing the neoliberal line.

I certainly hope that Clinton will resist those arguments.  Even if she does, the second possibility arises, which is that she will be committed in the abstract to a good policy position, but she will not find it worth her time to expend real effort to do anything about it.

The Obama Administration, for example, failed to respond to the right-wing takeover in Wisconsin led by Governor Scott Walker that began in 2010, all but mailing in their tepid support for his recall in 2012.  Similarly, the "card check" bill that mattered greatly to labor unions died of neglect early in the Obama years.

And I still fervently believe that Obama did not play his hand well when the Bush tax cuts were set to expire.  If ever there were an unforced error, that was it, and the best explanation is that Obama was insufficiently committed to progressivity in the tax system to be willing to make a real effort that could have led to a better outcome.

There are always plausible explanations for such outcomes.  Obama, for example, might have been told that he could not swing the outcome in Wisconsin in 2012, and it would thus be better not to try and fail.  I strongly disagree with that strategy, but it is certainly not crazy.

The third possibility is arguably the most important.  Clinton will compromise on issues in order to make incremental progress.  Count on it.  She will not do so because she is feckless or cannot be trusted, but because she will need to get certain things done, and there will be political prices for doing so.

Each time that she does this, her liberal and progressive supporters should encourage her to try harder and to reach for a better outcome.  What they should not do is assume that, to take one obvious possibility, her ultimate support for an $11 or $11.50 minimum wage is somehow proof that she never supported a higher number.

The frustrating thing about politics is that we can never say with certainty which of these three possibilities explains a president's conduct.  For example, Clinton might have good reason to know in advance what the best incremental outcome is, and she might also know that her opposition will never budge.  If so, she might appear to be expending little effort and accepting less than half-a-loaf.

And given that there will always be pundits and politicians saying that she should be moving rightward on every issue, they will claim that each of her decisions is proof that she has seen the error of her ways.

Does that mean that Clinton should receive the oddest of free passes, carte blanche from the left because she can claim every time that she did the best she could?  Certainly not.  There will always be evidence, contestable though it might be, that provides insight into a president's motivations. 

Take Obama's "pivot" to deficit reduction in 2010, which was highlighted by his attempts to reach a Grand Bargain with former House Speaker John Boehner.  There was simply no good economic argument at the time supporting Obama's change of heart, and the argument that economic confidence was the key was obviously specious.  He simply blew it, and he deserves to be blamed for some of the economic stagnation that followed.  (To his credit, he later made efforts to undo the damage.)

Clinton should not get a free pass, but neither should she be on some kind of short leash.  She did not merely agree to allow her party to adopt an impressively progressive platform at its convention, but she is aggressively running on that platform -- at precisely the time when some pundits are calling on her to move to the right.

But again, Hillary Clinton will definitely end up doing disappointing things when she is president.  When she does disappoint, it will matter why and how she is failing to do everything that people like me would like her to do.  There are good reasons to think that her future political success will depend on her ability to deliver for liberals, which means that she will probably disappoint as little as possible, and for the right reason, at least most of the time.

Given how fierce the Republicans will be in their opposition to everything Clinton proposes, however, I am not expecting much good to happen in the next four years.  But I will also know who is really at fault.