The Hillary parlor game

    It’s a symptom of Democrats’ current despair that so many are asking a question that has no answer: Would Hillary Clinton be doing any better?Or perhaps it deserves its own acronym, WWHD. (What would Hillary do?)The question has popped up everywhere in recent days (just as it did last autumn, on the eve of the congressional elections), and the true answer is that nobody knows. Still, it’s a fun parlor game to play – something akin to the old Saturday Night Live skits entitled “What If?,” the most memorable of which posed the question, “What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?”The questioners tend to fall into two camps: swing-voting Democrats who moved from Hillary to Obama during the ’08 primaries, but now suspect that she may have been right when she warned that Obama was too naive and inexperienced to fight what she accurately called “the vast right-wing conspiracy”; and the Hillary loyalists who stuck with their candidate to the bitter end, who are now essentially saying, “I told you so.”There’s even a school of thought that Hillary should quit the State Department and challenge Obama in the ’12 Democratic primaries (a preposterous idea, for reasons I shall soon explain), a scenario floated the other day by presidential scholar Matthew Dickinson. Writing on his blog, he said: “She should run for the good of the nation. She should run to prevent a rollback of health care, to make sure the Bush tax cuts are not renewed, to protect entitlement programs, to make sure Republicans – who are poised to regain the Senate in 2012 – don’t control all three governing institutions through 2016. It’s not about her – it’s about the future of the country. Madam Secretary, if you are reading this – the President is a good man who happened to be very unlucky in office. He inherited problems of almost unprecedented severity. But this is no time for sentiment to cloud your judgment. You need to do what’s right. If not now, when? If not you, who? The nation cries out for leadership.”Dickinson also addressed grassroots Democrats, by referencing a now-famous Hillary TV ad that questioned whether Obama had the guts to lead: “Remember that 3 a.m. phone call? Remember the warning about the rose-colored petals falling from the sky? Remember about learning on the job? Sure you do. Doesn’t a part of you, deep down, realize she was right?”The assumption, of course, is that Hillary, by dint of her Washington experience and the spurs she earned during the ’90s partisan wars, would have already shown herself to be a superior president, presumably having vanquished the Republicans and quelled the economic crisis by creating jobs. At the very least, the theory goes, a Hillary tenure would have spared us all the right-wing sewage about black Muslim socialists. Such are the sentiments of those currently engaging in buyer’s remorse.But it’s impossible to know whether she would have been any more adept at cleaning up the steaming dung heap bequeathed to the nation by George W. Bush. For starters, she would have faced many of the same political obstacles – most notably, an opposition party bent on destroying her presidency from day one. Had she won, she again would have been systematically slimed by the right as a “femiNazi” (Rush Limbaugh’s favorite term), and as a gay radical who was schooled in liberal permissiveness at Wellesley (from a breathless right-wing yarn that went viral in 2004: “Hillary Clinton had a lesbian roommate in college – a girl from a politically powerful family – who opened the future first lady’s eyes to the ways of the world, reveal sources”). Just as Obama has been not-so-subliminally attacked for governing while black, Hillary in an alternative universe would today be taking hits for supposedly governing as a “pushy” “ambitious” unfeminine elitist female.Hillary fans, the loyalists as well as the born-again, also seem to assume that she would be bolder, tougher, and less conciliatory than Obama. But the best evidence suggests no such thing. She lost many Democrats in 2008, lest we forget, because she was perceived as being too politically cautious. That was indeed one of her most prominent traits as a senator. She voted to authorize the war in Iraq, and she frequently worked across party lines with Republicans. She had an innate feel for Capitol Hill. Why should we assume that Hillary, as president, would have thrown caution to the winds and pushed for a more ambitious economic stimulus program in 2009 – or that she would have gone to the mat for a public option in the health care reform battle, especially considering all the heat she took on that issue as First Lady in 1994?Some Hillary loyalists have suggested lately that caution and political smarts would have prompted her to cut her losses on health reform, to score legislative victories on the most popular measures (protecting people with pre-existing health conditions), and thus not allow the reform issue to dominate the first two years at the expense of a laser focus on the economy. Perhaps, but who knows? Hillary seems newly pristine only because she is being viewed from a distance. Her State Department stint has made it all possible.As for those Democrats who pine for ’12 primary challenge, I can only wonder what herb they are smoking. That scenario would tear the party apart – and it would exacerbate racial tensions, given her popularity among working-class whites (assuming that’s still true) and Obama’s enduring popularity among blacks. Moreover, as Secretary of State she has been complicit in many of the Obama foreign policy moves (such as Afghanistan) that liberals frequently deplore.Dickinson, the presidential scholar, insists that, in the wake of a contested nomination, “the winner would come out stronger.” History proves otherwise. The incumbent typically weathers the storm, but emerges weaker for the general election – fatally so. Such was the case with Jimmy Carter, after he was bloodied by Edward Kennedy in 1980; with Gerald Ford, after he was bloodied by Ronald Reagan in 1976; with George H. W. Bush, after he was bloodied by Pat Buchanan in 1992; with William Howard Taft, after he was bloodied by Theodore Roosevelt back in 1912.For Hillary fans, the only credible scenario is that Obama would pull an LBJ a la 1968 – President Lyndon Johnson, under twin challenges from Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, bowed out voluntarily – but, short of that, we have only the parlor game. In all likelihood, Democrats will have to heed an old southern saying that goes something like this:”You got to dance with the one what brung ya.”——- In the post above, I refer in passing to “the steaming dung heap bequeathed to the nation by George W. Bush.” That hardly requires any explanation at this point, since his fiscal legacy is so obvious, but Joe Nocera, in his New York Times column today, summarizes it oh so succinctly: “Has any president in American history left behind as much lasting damage as George W. Bush? In addition to two unfinished wars, he also set us on the path to our current financial mess. The Bush tax cuts, which turned a surplus into a growing deficit, have been disastrous. As James Fallows pointed out in a prescient 2005 article in The Atlantic predicting a meltdown, they reduced tax revenue ‘to its lowest level as a share of the economy in the modern era.’ (In its downgrade report, S.& P. suggested that it did not believe that Congress would let the cuts expire at the end of 2012, as they’re supposed to.) Then, in 2003, Bush pushed through prescription drug coverage for Medicare recipients. David M. Walker, then the comptroller general, described 2003 as ‘the most reckless fiscal year in the history of the Republic,’ adding some $13 trillion in future entitlement costs.”

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