Subscribe via RSS Feed

The 2008 Counterfactual

[ 84 ] August 19, 2011 |

Rebecca Traister has a terrific piece about counterfactuals and the 2008 primary. Amanda has some comments as well. Traister does a good job of outlining the where there may have differences — Obama’s coatails (which were likely decisive in the Hagan and Franken Senate races) versus the unlikelihood that Clinton would have played the debt ceiling hand as badly, for example. But the revisionism that has turned someone with an extensive history of centrist deal-cutting into the second coming of Eugene Debs notwithstanding, the differences would be marginal. (And there’s no doubt that had Obama lost the primary, his supporters would be imagining a left-wing Obama presidency that was never going to happen too.)

Particularly after Obama named Clinton his Secretary of State and adopted Clinton’s signature domestic issue in essentially the form that she advocated it — narrowing the nickel’s worth of difference between them to a penny — in policy terms the 2008 Democratic primary was about almost nothing. For reasons Traister’s excellent book explains, the primary was one of major political and cultural significance — and I don’t want to use the word “symbolic,” which trivializes the very real importance of a primary battle between strong candidates from historically underrepresented and marginalized groups — but not policy significance.

…I agree with a commenter that this is also a good point.

Comments (84)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. charles pierce says:

    “Particularly after Obama named Clinton his Secretary of State and adopted Clinton’s signature domestic issue in essentially the form that she advocated it…”

    Except, of course, not in the way HE was advocating it in the campaign. Which meant that, on this issue, while the primary turned out to mean very little, it certainly did for people at the time. Which ought to count, I think.

    http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2009/jul/20/barack-obama/obama-flip-flops-requiring-people-buy-health-care/

  2. howard says:

    my mother is almost as left as i am, and we were talking a couple of weeks about whether there would be a challenge to obama from the left.

    i said “no way, there is no one on the left in the democratic party who is big enough to challenge a sitting president.”

    my mother said “hillary.”

    i said “you’ve got to be kidding me: hillary isn’t a leftist!”

    which is to say that scott is absolutely right here: had clinton won out in 2008, there would absolutely be a lot of people imagining a progressive obama presidency.

  3. mpowell says:

    It’s true. Obama predictably moved left by passing HCR that involved a mandate. He also (somewhat) predictably moved right on security related issues where he ran to the left of Clinton and Edwards. Admist our current ecnomic woes, it’s hard to remember that this is the most disappointing part of his presidency in the sense that Congress didn’t force him down this path.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Right. I never expect a president to be good on civil liberties, but I would have thought that Obama would have been better than Clinton — but while I suppose it’s still theoretically possible there’s no real basis for that belief anymore.

      • charles pierce says:

        Clinton’s still the second-worst president on civil liberties in my lifetime — and I’m not sure, if you count all the ideas that got thrown into the Patriot Act that originated with Clinton’s DOJ, that he’s not very close to a photo finish with C-Plus Augustus.

  4. Jim Harrison says:

    Left, Smeft! The assumption here is that lots of people wish Clinton were in charge because of their belief that she is more liberal than Obama when what many of them, at least the ones I talk to, really think that the important thing is that she is a tougher character, more of a Churchill, less of a Chamberlain. Neither Obama or Hillary are very liberal, and both are considerably better from a policy point of view than any of the Republicans in the candidates; but Hillary doesn’t seem to be obsessed with this can’t-we-all-get-along bit and understands the character of her opponents on an existential level.

    • I’ve seen both, Jim. I’ve seen plenty of people make the claim that Hillary Clinton is more liberal that Obama.

      But this assertion usually comes from people who go on to argue that Obama is a Friedmanite Manchurian Candidate.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      On the other hand, one of the other things that separated Obama and Clinton from each other in 2008 is that Obama’s political operation ran circles around Clinton’s.

      Anyone who wishes that Mark Penn were plotting the response to the Republican House should have his or her head examined.

      The notion that we just need more of a “fighter” is an extension of the mistaken view that the problem with the Democrats during the Bush years was that they lacked “spine.”

      The problem with the leading figures in the Democratic Party is not that they are spineless progressives, but that they are spiny (spinful?) centrists.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        spineful*

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Yup. This has always been the biggest problem with the idea that Clinton is a cannier strategist — the 2008 primary was hers to lose and she lost it.

        • JRoth says:

          Uh, I think that Obama has proven, beyond conclusively, that adeptness at handling electoral politics has no correlation whatsoever with adeptness at handling legislative politics.

          You might as well argue that Obama’s superior basketball chops prove that Hillary would have been less effective while in office.

          • Odd, then, that he passed a much larger legislative agenda than any president since LBJ, if not FDR.

            • Bill Murray says:

              quantity doesn’t actually equal quality. Not that Hilary’s quality would be any better

              • The statement I was replying to was Obama has proven, beyond conclusively, that adeptness at handling electoral politics has no correlation whatsoever with adeptness at handling legislative politics.

                One’s opinion about the quality of the legislation passed in Obama’s first term isn’t really relevant to the issue of whether he is, or is not, adept handling legislative politics.

            • 8 says:

              also odd that you measure presidents by quantity not quality

              • When measuring a President’s “adeptness at handling legislative politics,” it is odd to look at how much of his legislative agenda he was able to pass?

                If you say so.

                But, then, I was actually responding to, and offering my opinion on, a subject more detailed than “general impressions about Obama.” Perhaps that’s where the disconnect comes in, because you don’t seem to be.

                • Murc says:

                  Actually, joe, they kinda have a point.

                  If there were a President whose entire legislative agenda consisted of wanting nonbinding resolutions about how puppies and kittens are awesome passed every day, he could probably succeed at that. Would that sheer quantity prove he was adept at handling legislative politics?

                  I mean, I get what you’re saying. But the quality of a legislative agenda has just as much to do as how much of it you manage to get passed.

                • But the quality of a legislative agenda has just as much to do as how much of it you manage to get passed.

                  Where “quality” refers to the scope of the legislation, and thus the difficulty of getting it passed, yes, quality matters. In this sense, Obama’s legislative agenda is, objectively, high-quality. Look at the unified, furious opposition his entire legislative agenda generated. He got an enormous agenda passed in the face of that. This goes directly to the issue of his adeptness at legislating.

                  Where “quality” is defined in ideological terms – how close to my vision of good government does this raft of legislation bring us – then we’re talking about a measure that is not only subjective, but also unrelated to the question of adeptness at legislating.

  5. One of the factors that aided Obama in the primary was the sense that he wasn’t as divisive a figure as Clinton (meaning, the Republicans didn’t have a long standing, psychotic loathing of him as an important part of their identity), and that therefore, there would be less partisan hostility if he won.

    I question whether this impression has been entirely vindicated by events.

    • JRoth says:

      Very well put.

    • David Hunt says:

      I think that you’re technically correct, but it’s my opinion that the amount of partisan hostility we have from the GOP now is approximately the same as it would have been if Hilary Clinton had won the election. I think that only the form some of the attacks are different.

      If Clinton had won, instead of all the racist (dog-whistles and outright) attacks we’d be seeing, there’d be a load of sexist attacks on Clinton, people trying to make dog analogies in an effort to subtly call her a bitch, etc. We’d also get to see a massive recycling of the old Whitewater lines of attack as well as every other pseudo-scandal that was dreamed up during the Clinton Administration. Ken Starr would crawl out from under his rock and make numerous TV appearances talking about how Ms. Clinton was neck-deep in everything that he investigated, etc. etc. etc. The tenor of the attacks would be different because they’d be tailor made to attack whoever won, but I think that the only that would have made a difference in the degree of partisan hostility would (possibly) be the policy successes of the President. I believe that the more policy successes that a Demcratic President has, the more the GOP steps up their attacks, so if Clinton had been muck successful in enacting her agenda, the Right would have gone even more insane.
      As a p.s. I think that even though the Hilary Clinton would have had no more partisan hostility to her presidency, it’s still one of the main things that skunked her bid for the Whitehouse. People were so tired of all the insane attacks from the Clinton years that they couldn’t stand to live through that again. At least with Obama, we get new made up scandals…

      • JRoth says:

        Clearly. But Obama more or less explicitly ran on the idea that, unlike Hillary, he could change the atmosphere in Washington. No one’s under any illusions that HRC’s Presidency would have been an era of respectful disagreement, but lots of people were under the illusion that Obama’s would be. Indeed, he promised it.

        If you posed the question “Both BHO and HRC will face unprecedented obstruction and personal and political attacks if elected; whom would you rather see face that?” to Democratic primary voters in 2008, I wonder what they would have answered.

        • Indeed, he promised it.

          Link? Quote?

        • John F says:

          No one’s under any illusions that HRC’s Presidency would have been an era of respectful disagreement, but lots of people were under the illusion that Obama’s would be. Indeed, he promised it.

          And I honestly believed he tried, the trouble is it takes two to tango and the other side never had any intention of ending their crap

        • Ed says:

          No one’s under any illusions that HRC’s Presidency would have been an era of respectful disagreement, but lots of people were under the illusion that Obama’s would be. Indeed, he promised it.

          Yes, he did. One of the things that made me wonder about him was his apparent belief in his own rhetoric about Washington. I understood that because of his skin color Obama had to be careful about not sounding too angry or resentful of the opposition, but he also seemed not to understand the nature of the beast, perhaps out of overconfidence.

      • I agree, David.

        But the attacks on Hillary would have included a lot of warmed-over Baby Boomer Sixtiesman bullshit. Remember McCain’s line when Clinton sponsored a bill for a Woodstock museum? “I was tied up at the time.”

        So, at least we dodged that bullet.

  6. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    This is also why one of the silliest anti-Obama memes is that he’s a Republican.

    Obama and Clinton–far and away the two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008–were virtually identical on the issues.

    And this in turn reflects the fact that their shared brand of transactional centrism has been absolutely dominant in the Democratic Party for a generation.

    Don’t like Obama’s politics? Then you probably don’t like today’s Democratic Party very much.

    (And if you can’t see the difference between Obama’s and Clinton’s politics, on the one hand, and the actual politics of today’s GOP, on the other, you haven’t been paying much attention to today’s GOP.)

    • NonyNony says:

      Most of the folks I know who call Obama a Republican (at least those I know in real life, rather than as anonymous internet posters) would call either Clinton a Republican as well. They generally mean that Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Obama would all make great Nixon-era Republicans.

      Which is probably true. I try to get them to understand that while that might be true, it’s also true that in the Johnson era, Mike McConnell’s seat would probably be held by a Democrat too. So what?

      You fight your political battles with the political parties you have, not the ones you wish you had.

      • Davis X. Machina says:

        Already in the ’66 Senate, Kentucky had two Republican senators. On the other hand, both of them voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and one of them, Sen. Cooper, was an opponent of the Vietnam War. (He’s the ‘Cooper’ in the Cooper-Church amendment.)

        Sometimes the mutatis don’t mutandis quite the way you expect.

      • Provider_UNE says:

        Most of the folks I know who call Obama a Republican (at least those I know in real life, rather than as anonymous internet posters) would call either Clinton a Republican as well. They generally mean that Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Obama would all make great Nixon-era Republicans.

        I would be one such individual, I said it about Clinton, Bill, when he was in office.

        You fight your political battles with the political parties you have, not the ones you wish you had.

        Exactly right. Though that does not mitigate the frustration of having to watch the discourse shift so far to the right that for a while now we have had the choice between the Republican party of the old Northeast and a Neo-Dominionist/Neo-Feudal alliance.

        Of course I am gonna vote for the Republican in that scenario

  7. Wannabe Speechwriter says:

    Matt Yglesias also made a good point about how the single biggest issue today-jobs-wasn’t even discussed in the primary. We don’t know how a Clinton Presidency would have dealt with this.

    One thing all the Clinton counterfactuals fail to bring up is Clinton is in Obama’s Cabinet. If she felt so strongly that he was a miserable failure or disagreed so strongly with how he’s handling the situation, she can resign.

    • JRoth says:

      If Obama talked about her the way he talks about his liberal supporters, she probably would resign.

      I think we have to consider the possibility that the former Presidential candidate enjoys being in a position of power and influence, even if she thinks her boss might be doing a worse job than she would have.

    • Not even just “today.” During the primary, the single biggest issue in that year’s general election wasn’t even discussed.

      This was true of both parties. McCain said that he didn’t know much about economics, and it just didn’t matter in the Republican primary race,

  8. wengler says:

    I guess this theory makes sense if you take it that Obama was a great campaigner, but mediocre President, then it must be true that Hillary was mediocre campaigner, but great President?

  9. snoey says:

    Coattails and winning the future voter.

    My 20 something offspring saw Obama as highly relevant and Clinton as leading to yet another tiresome round of the battles their parents fought.

  10. Michael Drew says:

    For me, whatever the differences, within reason, in policy outcomes between the real history and the counterfactual (and keep in mind that in the real history, a Democrat winning the 2008 has a probability of 1, while in the counterfactual, it remains something <1), it remains worth it to me that the 2008 Democratic nomination race was fought largely on the (symbolic) topic of Democrats' de facto legislative support, Clinton's unsatisfactory if not totally-without-merit explanations of her 2002 vote aside, for the Iraq war.

  11. bay of arizona says:

    Hagan outperformed Obama in NC so I am not sure which definition of coattails you are using. Unless this is in reference to the drawn out primary season in general.

  12. David B. says:

    Obama didn’t play the “debt ceiling hand” badly, and if you think the Secretary of State wasn’t in his ear telling him to do whatever he could to avoid defaulting, I submit you are smoking crack rocks.

  13. TT says:

    It’s very hard to imagine a Clinton presidency differing all that much from the Obama presidency in most every particular, whether on civil liberties, Afghanistan, stress testing and reforming the banks, cap and trade, Gitmo, and so on. The big exception, I believe, is health care reform. During the campaign Clinton espoused a more cautious approach and probably would have settled for much, much less than what Obama eventually got. But I do tend to think she might have played the debt celing fiasco a little bit more skillfully, both from negotiating (demanding it be tied to extending the Bush tax cuts) and PR (not shying away from kicking Boehner in the nuts) points of view.

    The determined viciousness of the GOP/FNC would have been the same regardless of which Democrat won the presidency in 2008.

  14. Pithlord says:

    I agree with the general point. Not sure about playing the “debt ceiling hand badly.” The only clear unforced error I can think of is Reid deciding not to raise it during the lame duck so the Republicans would have to own the issue. But in any event, the Republicans could always threaten a game of budget chicken one way or the other, sooner or later, so I don’t know what anyone could do about this other than win the 2010 midterm. And I don’t see how Clinton would have been any better than Obama at doing that.

    • JRoth says:

      What makes you think that was Reid’s decision? Obama endorsed it wholeheartedly at the time. Do you think Reid forgot to call him first?

      • snarkout says:

        Reid’s was on the record at the time saying that they didn’t want to raise the debt ceiling in the lame duck session, since Dem leadership wanted to defang it as an attack by ensuring that Republicans had to vote for it. Maybe this was a genius strategy cooked up by the White House and passed off to the Reid’s office, but I think the Senate Majority Leader is capable of screwing things up himself on occasion.

  15. JRoth says:

    It’s very clear that Obama values bipartisanship above all else. He talked about it constantly during the primary and the general, he has started every negotiation at the position of bipartisan compromise, and he blames “Washington” much, much more often than he does “Republicans” for thwarting his ostensible agenda.

    So the question is whether HRC would also have been as committed to bipartisanship, or whether, at some point, she might have pursued different strategies. She clearly is willing to be bipartisan – she’s no ideologue – but it’s hard to imagine her taking Obama’s “Thank you, Sir, may I have another” approach.

    • scott says:

      I agree with Scott that all of this is probably unknowable bullshit, but I also agree with JRoth. Obama and Clinton were similar on a policy level, but it is difficult for me to imagine after going through the full-on conservative nutburger onslaught on the WH of 1993-2001 that HRC would have any illusions about whom she was dealing with on the other side. Similarly, I don’t believe that she would believe in the tactic of pre-compromising half of what you want before you start bargaining, ending up with the 10% that appears to represent Obama’s line in the sand on any issue. He’s weak; hell, LGM, Balloon Juice, Daily Kos, Klein, and Yglesias have invented a Grand Bystander Theory of the Presidency (that they never seemed to believe in before) to explain away his weakness. Even if HRC isn’t a flaming liberal, I don’t think she’s weak. That makes a difference to me.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        hat they never seemed to believe in before

        That just isn’t true. I’d also love you to name some trained political scientists who see the presidency as dominant in terms of domestic policy.

        • bob mcmanus says:

          So it was Tip O’Neill’s tax cuts and defense buildup in the 80s? Ronnie who?

          Mike Mansfield’s Civil Rights and Great Society?

          Whoever’s New Deal?

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            Retroactively, policy changes get identified with presidents, sometimes for good reason and sometimes not. It sure is an amazing coincidence that the presidents remembered for advancing progressive change happened to have historically unusually congressional majorities to work with, though.

            • Myung says:

              But it is not about the majorities
              it is about the content of those majorities, right? Obama had the largest majorities since 1977 but
              they were composed of the wrong kinds of Democrats.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                Well, reactionary Democrats were a lot more reactionary in 1936 or 1964 than now, so it depends how you look at it. Because of the unusual number of liberal Republicans, I would say that LBJ had a more favorable context than FDR. But, basically, there had to be huge Democratic majorities to get anything resembling a liberal majority, and that’s still kind of the case.

          • Murc says:

            You know, I’d like to see some real in-depth analysis on how week John Boehner is compared to past Speakers. Traditionally, the House has been the chamber most subject to ironclad party discipline because the way its rules are structured if you don’t play ball it is very easy for the leadership to punish you, and people LIKE their committee chairs. I can’t see anyone pulling the shit against Mansfield or O’Neill or Pelosi that the teatards and Cantor have subjected Boehner to.

  16. bob mcmanus says:

    “He’s weak; hell, LGM, Balloon Juice, Daily Kos, Klein, and Yglesias have invented a Grand Bystander Theory of the Presidency (that they never seemed to believe in before) to explain away his weakness.”

    No, Obama is not weak. The opposition blogs, FDL, Welsh, Digby etc believe that Obama is very good at getting what he wants from the process while deflecting the blame from himself and creating space for the flacks you mention above to excuse away his anti-liberal achievements.

    An alternative explanation can be found this week at IOZ, who singles out Lemieux by name. IOZ, as an anarchist, believes that Rome creates its Caesars.

    • Murc says:

      “He’s weak; hell, LGM, Balloon Juice, Daily Kos, Klein, and Yglesias have invented a Grand Bystander Theory of the Presidency (that they never seemed to believe in before) to explain away his weakness.”

      This is so incredibly wrong that it verges on ‘knowingly lying.’

  17. bob mcmanus says:

    No, Clinton was unlikely to be any better or even significantly different than Obama as President.

    But to blame the “system” or current conditions I think is to overlook at least one aspect of Obama’s agency. If the system is “dysfunctional,” although it does appear to be serving parts of the population very well indeed, one can either “work with and within the system” or attempt to reverse the bad trends. I see very little evidence that Obama makes any attempt at the latter, as for example breaking all records for campaign fund raising. Or the banks:He has shown no interest in structural change at a time when structural change is necessary.

    On the contrary, almost every indicator of dysfunction or collapse in America seems to be accelerating under Obama’s watch, and he seems to be swimming with the tide rather than against it.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Well, the system is dysfunctional from my perspective because it prevents majorities from governing. But of course in the long run this protects vested interests, which is one reason Madison wanted it that way.

      How unilaterally refusing to raise money will advance progressive interests is something I’m afraid I’m too much of a sellout to understand. I would suggest looking at who appointed the judges on either side of the Roberts Court’s campaign finance decisions, however.

  18. Wannabe Speechwriter says:

    What is it with the obsession with the belief politicians’ personalities affect policy decisions? Instead of focusing on the actual levers of power (structures of government, the influence of money, strength of mass movements, etc), there is an obsession with “what is this person really thinking?” You get educated professionals like Glenn Greenwald sounding like undergrads in an Intro to Physc class.

    Personality does matter. It’s true Liebermann killed the Medicare buy-in just to spite liberal bloggers. However, without the filibuster, Democrats wouldn’t have needed his vote for health care. Without a Senate, people representing small states wouldn’t have disproportionate power. With a stronger labor movement, politicians would have to worry about serious repercussions for voting against the social safety net.

    I realize that we on the left this personality stuff when Bush was President. However, looking back this distracted us from bigger issues. Focusing on the relationship between 41 and 43 was a lot less useful than looking at how conservatives created an amazing grassroots network of support.

    Why does merely stating there are other factors at play than just what President Obama personally feels cause the FDL crowd to foam at the mouth? What does FDR’s womanizing tell us about his decision to detain Japanese Americans? What does Reagan’s movie career tell us about his administration selling weapons to the Iranians? How is reading into personality too much by the anti-Obama crowd any different than the same decision by the Beltway press?

  19. [...] Scott notes what many of us realized at the time: “in policy terms the 2008 Democratic primary was about [...]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Switch to our mobile site