Just days away from 2012, a year likely to be totally consumed by an election still eleven long months away, it’s probably a good time to look back an assess. After reading Charles McGrath’s enthusiastic NY Times story on Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Margret Thatcher in Iron Lady, I couldn’t help but think of 2008 and the marathon contest between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Thatcher, we all remember, was the first woman to become a head of government in her own right. The film’s British director Phyllida Lloyd, by no means a Tory, told McGrath, I was sitting in my room at university when the radio announced that she had been asked to form a government, and I went ‘Yes!’ It felt like one for our team. To which Streep added, I did the same thing. We all thought if it can happen in England, class bound, socially rigid, homophobic — if they can elect a female leader over there, then it’s just seconds away in America. Well obviously not seconds, Senator Clinton didn’t make it.
The 2008 primaries were tough for the two candidates but also for many of us in being forced to choose between our equally strong commitments to feminism and civil rights — our dreams of righting inequities and imbalance on both counts. What a painful choice — the first woman President or the first African American. As you know, I opted for Obama to some degree because, having experienced the Bush dynasty, I was loath to see a Clinton one. But perhaps equally so, having sat in the hot sun just feet below the lectern where Martin King spoke of them, I was overtaken by dreams. I was not alone.
Clinton and Obama were both compelling candidates, both highly qualified to lead the country. As Senators, a position that has rarely led to the White House, one couldn’t argue that one was more electable than the other. Clinton rested her campaign on experience, which she surely had. Obama, focused on change, something the country desperately wanted. It struck a chord and in the end his argument carried the day, supported in great measure by his personal charisma and star quality. Cranky old-looking John McCain didn’t have a chance.
There is no more favorite game political junkies play than, what if? How might things have turned out if the now Secretary Clinton had won in ’08 and Obama had not? Specifically, how might she have addressed the economy, the still raging wars, healthcare and all the other problems we’ve had in these last three years? Hilary Clinton, as her campaign and history in public life have clearly shown, is an unabashed Centrist. She supported the Iraq invasion and is generally hawkish. Since many of us saw hers as a race for a third Clinton term, one also has to take her husband's presidency, (in which she was deeply involved — part of her experience) into account. Clearly, some self-inflicted wounds clouded Bill Clinton’s tenure and, like Obama or more so, he was the object of irrational hate from the far Right. Even so, Clinton had some significant accomplishments including a successful intervention in the Balkans and most notably leaving office with a budget surplus. Nonetheless, he failed to deliver on healthcare, gave in with the disgraceful don’t ask, don’t tell policy and shepherded the repeal of Glass-Steagall, something that has led to disastrous and fully predictable consequences.
If there is one word that one hears most about the Obama presidency it is, disappointment. Hilary Clinton might not have suffered the same assessment. No one had the expectation that she would govern from the Left, and aside from the aspirational hopes for having a woman as president — finally — illusory dreams played little role for her supporters or the country. Change was not her theme, and when she tepidly tried embracing it toward the end of a campaign falling short, it just wouldn’t play. So in that regard, Ms. Clinton might have had an advantage relative to the President who, as I’ve said many times, suffers from not living up to our perceptions of him. He, too, is a Centrist and always was, but I still think one to her left. He opposed the Iraq invasion and, if reports are correct, has been less hawkish than his Secretary of State.
Bill Clinton campaigned on the Economy Stupid, and has been hailed for delivering on his promise. He was surrounded by a financial dream team led by Rubin and Summers, men who were seen as walking on economic water. We all know where that went. Bush certainly had a big hand in our economic melt down but, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear the seeds of catastrophe were planted deep in the ‘90s, most especially in overturning Glass-Steagall. Obama has been roundly criticized for essentially retaining Clinton’s economic team. Is there any doubt a President Hilary Clinton would have done the exactly same? In fact, I have always thought that bringing in those people was in part a political nod to the woman whose campaign so valiantly and almost successively shattered the glass ceiling as well as his buying into an economic miracle story, that turned out to be somewhat of an overblown myth. Miracles have a way of doing that.
Clinton’s healthcare campaign proposals were much more robust than Obama’s, something that cost him some support throughout. Regardless, both promised healthcare reform as an early priority and certainly Obama delivered, even if with substantially less than was wanted by his supporters or needed by the country. Hilary Clinton ran on experience, and when it comes to the White House days her singular experience, managing the proposed healthcare bill, was an utter failure. She was seen as heavy handed and secretive, pushing against the legislative process to the extent that no bill could be passed, probably partly out of jurisdictional pique. The irony is that she was elected a Senator before Bill Clinton left office and, despite a skeptical reception by colleagues, turned out to be a highly effective and respected member, dare I say, one of the boys. With that experience she might have had considerable success with healthcare this time around. But it is also true that Obama’s decision to stand back, some would argue too far back, during the healthcare process may have reflected his style but undoubtedly was heavily influenced by the Clinton experience. At the end, he succeeded where no other president had, and the difference between what might have been under her stewardship is probably more marginal than many of us would hope or assume.
We have ended the Iraq War. Yes I know we have a big embassy there and continue to employ mercenaries who look and act like soldiers — quacks like a duck. A second President Clinton would likely also have ended the war, which had long lost the support of the American people. Obama escalated in Afghanistan. She would have done the same and is reported to have wanted more than he was willing to commit. Obama essentially turned the War on Terrorism into a hunt for terrorists, and with substantial success. With the same capabilities of Special Forces and drones at her disposal, a President Clinton might have done the same and as Secretary of State (a very effective one) she certainly has been actively engaged in developing that policy.
The old argument of whether leaders or the times count most always plays into assessments like these. I happen to believe that who is in charge makes a big difference, but the truth is that the stage on which she or he performs plays a critical sometimes-determinative role. No one will question that both Obama and Clinton would have been handed the same terrible hand with cards heavily stacked against success. The public was frustrated when they ran against each other and has shown itself, if anything, more so since. These are two very different people who share similar political visions, though again I do think Obama leans intellectually and otherwise more to the left. Having gotten three quarters of the way through a first term, both would be facing a challenging re-election bid. In politics, especially with a nation bitterly divided, it’s hard to predict with certainty whether Democrats will prevail in ‘12, though I think he will. Whatever happens, it’s likely the next five years will continue to be tough sledding for whoever is President and for us. One can always hope things will turn out for the best not the worst. For sure, there will be much to write about and hopefully with more regularity.
Happy New Year!