Political Inversions: Clinton in ’08 and Obama in ’16?
A reflection on the strategic consequences of accidental American political inversions.
January 6, 2017
It is often said that it is pointless to ask “what if” questions. The arc of history simply did not bend that way.
True. But in light of the drama that is going to unfold in the United States, with effects for decades to come (and, owing to the future shape of the Supreme Court, far beyond the four or eight years the Trump/Pence administration will serve), it is still a meaningful question.
Imagine Hillary Clinton had not faltered in the Democratic primaries eight years ago and had become President in 2008. A woman in the Oval Office at long last – that would have meant a big jolt for a vast segment of the population, not least in terms of identity politics.
Further assume that Hillary Clinton was have staffed up her administration with pretty much the same folks as Barack Obama did, especially the economic team – and that therefore the results of her domestic policymaking would have been similar to Obama’s:
- A half-hearted reform of the financial sector
- A piecemeal health care reform law
- A weak program to reduce carbon emissions
- Little-noticed education reforms
It is possible that Barack Obama would have almost automatically succeeded her after eight years. After the innovation of having a woman in the Oval Office, it would have felt much less revolutionary to have a black man serve in that role.
It would have been the natural progression of things. The country might have changed forever.
But assume that, after eight years of Clinton, the country would have opted for a Republican as President, as it has just done now after eight years of Obama.
If it had been the other way around, with Clinton reaching the White House before (or, rather, instead of) Obama, would Donald Trump have had a pathway to run for President? For sure. The economic circumstances would have been no different, only the politics of symbolism.
Did Obama win or the Republicans?
It is revelatory to see how quickly and how intensely the Republicans seized the opportunity of having a black man in the White House. In hindsight, one could even argue that Barack Obama did not win the 2008 election – but the Republicans did.
Consider the evidence: Yes, it was historic to have a black man as President. But his election — far from moving the United States to brighter, more open-minded shores – even then only unleashed sinister racist forces.
The Republican leadership was very adept at exploiting this sentiment, steadily fomented as it was by the declining economic fortunes of the white working class. It started labeling everything as “Obama” – used in every case with a mean-spirited, racist undertone.
Many felt curiously liberated. They could from now on intone the “O” word with the very same venom as was the case with the prohibited “N” word. Same energy, just unassailable when used.
The Republicans’ political mission: Delay the inevitable
Ever vicious and going for the kill, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, made his Republicans’ intention abundantly clear.
He understood one fact in a crystal-clear manner: If left unchecked, the arrival of Barack Obama could indeed transform the United States at that very moment for real to what it will eventually become – a truly multi-racial republic.
That fact, as the Republicans are painfully aware, is already fully baked into the demographic “cake” of the country. But acknowledging demographic facts is one thing, accepting them as a political reality is something very different.
The Republicans’ political mission therefore became a simple one – prevent the (eventually) inevitable, by delaying it not just today and tomorrow, but for as long as humanly possible.
In October 2010, during the mid-term election campaign, Mitch McConnell solemnly declared that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president..”
He could have said that he was going to do his utmost to stop every Obama policy initiative – even entirely sensible ones, such as infrastructure programs post the 2008/9 financial crisis – and its root, making sure it was DOA (dead upon arrival).
Or he could have said, as he later claimed he had meant, that he simply wanted to elect Republicans to Congress and the White House to enact a Republican agenda.
But those are not the words he chose. The words he chose tell the real story.
Deliberately turned Obama into a piñata
The Republicans playing hardball for sure irritated many a liberal voter in the United States.
And most African-Americans, with good reason, felt personally attacked because their leading light – the man whose new post seemed at last to make anything possible for the community after so much suffering — was turned into a piñata. They are right, he was.
But, and this is the key question, what was the political fallout from that? The Democratic Party feeling irritated. African Americans feeling indignant.
Splitting the electorate, deliberately
And the rest of the country, especially the politically ever more volatile white working class? Well, it didn’t really feel much of the indignity the Republicans plentifully heaped on trustworthy Mr. Obama.
The working class just felt left alone. Insecure in its economic status, faced with a shrinking jobs base. Ardent students of history and the darker sides of human emotions, Republicans were ready to use the nuclear option.
They deliberately unleashed the forces of carefully coded racism (positioning the “O” word as the grand collector for everybody’s frustrations about everything) as a political tool for their ulterior power purposes.
Naïve, de-based Democrats
What they did not expect is that the Democratic Party establishment fell into that trap – lock, stock and barrel.
When they saw all those Clinton Democrats and Obama Democrats worship Silicon Valley and its job-killing visions of a robotic future, Republicans simply could not believe their eyes.
It was as if the Democratic Party operatives, celebrating the offerings from the Silicon Valley plutocrats to fill their campaign coffers more fully from these fine liberalo-libertarians, had forgotten about their voter base.
No amount of being bankrolled by Silicon Valley could possibly make up for the political fallout of the Democrats’ eager celebration of the job destroyers.
The Republicans must have been rubbing their eyes all along, in disbelief. Could the Democrats misread the mood of the country so much?
Celebrating Silicon Valley plutocrats and undocumented immigrants or focusing so much political capital on same-sex marriage and bathroom rights for transgender people, while doing little to rectify the economic hollowing out of the country’s job market and erosion of safety nets?
Not even Lee Atwater, one of the darkest political operative the Republicans ever, would have come up with such a script in his wildest dreams.
But what about 2017?
With all that in mind, what about the arrival of a President Trump – after Hillary Clinton had just ended her second term in office? Would he be able to dismantle things just the same way?
Technically, perhaps yes. But at the core, the question is to what extent Hillary’s reforms – representing just over 50% of the electorate (in terms of identity politics) – would stand on sturdier political ground than Obama’s (who, in terms of identity politics, represents 11% of the electorate). That is a big difference.
True, Barack Obama achieved a much more universal level of support from his smaller identity base than Clinton ever could from her larger identity base.
But for all the dislike of Hillary, the (eternal) candidate, even among many women it is not implausible to believe that even quite a few Republican-leaning women would have come around, assuming that she would have been able to implement some vital reforms to improve women’s lives (such as paid maternity and family leave, childcare assistance and pay equity).
Women’s rights vs. racism
Democrats would likely deny that having Hillary in the White House first would have made any difference in the 2016 outcome. It is easier to believe this than to believe it could have been averted by a different course of action.
Republicans, however, would likely agree. Since they are the group that does not have an ownership stake in this question either way, their sentiment is bound to be the more reliable one.
If the Republicans had attacked a President Hillary Clinton as viciously from 2008 to 2016 as viciously as they attacked Barack Obama, that would have eventually peeved a great number of women, not just Democrat-voting ones.
The United States has a deep-seated and difficult to untangle relationship with white supremacy and casually embedded racism, which makes it easy to hold back the progress of African-Americans.
Its relationship with women’s rights and social inclusion, while still troubled, has always been far more favorable. U.S. states began granting women the right to vote before any other country.
“Republican motherhood” concept
Well before then, women were identified as the inter-generational guardians of U.S. political values through the “Republican motherhood” concept.
Their political causes, such as temperance and prohibition, were major forces before winning the right to vote. Women’s liberation and feminism in the mid- to late-20th century was met with minimal state violence, in contrast with the racial civil rights movement.
The Republicans would have had a real problem with being as profoundly misogynistic toward Clinton as they were racist toward Obama. Such a charge is hard to defend against, not least because anything one says about it, in one way or another, affects 50% of the electorate.
True, the working class would likely have been economically as disillusioned after Hillary as it is now. But far fewer of its members would have fallen for the anti-woman thing as they did for the craftily alluring sounds of crypto-racism.
Had Clinton been elected in 2008 & enacted the Obama agenda, might it have been less reversible?
Obama was more vulnerable to maligning than Hillary Clinton, with racism more accepted than sexism.
Anti-woman attacks have less widespread resonance with U.S. voters than crypto-racism.