For journalists, the dog days of August are the worst. Nothing happens because Congress and the rest of you are all on vacation. So now is the time for whatever quirky column has been niggling at the back of one’s mind, waiting for a break in the news cycle. Unfortunately, even if nothing has been niggling, your deadline still beckons. So it’s also the time for thumb-suckers about America in the 21st century, homages to parenthood, wild speculations about what sort of electronic devices our grandchildren will use, or anything else that will fill the requisite inches.
One of my favorite members of this genre is the counterfactual: Would Hitler have won World War II if he had left Russia alone? Would Medicare exist if JFK had lived? What would 20th-century literature have looked like if Ernest Hemingway had been shot while driving that ambulance? There’s no way to tell, but how much fun to debate!
Well, Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum has tickled my counterfactual fancy with the following aside: “I don’t have any problems with Hillary’s domestic policy. I’ve never believed that she ‘understood' the Republican party better than Obama and therefore would have gotten more done if she’d won in 2008, but I don’t think she would have gotten any less done either. It’s close to a wash.”
I’m actually going to disagree a bit here. I think that Hillary Clinton would have been more cautious when dealing with Republicans, and therefore ultimately more successful in some ways. At the very least, she would not be facing the same level of vehement opposition in Congress.
I think liberals really do not understand emotionally the extent to which the tea party was created by the Affordable Care Act and the feeling that its government was simply steamrolling it. From the tea party’s perspective, you had an unpopular program that should have died in the same way, and for the same reasons, that Social Security privatization did: because sensible politicians saw that, no matter how ardently they and their base might desire it, this was out of step with what the majority of the country wanted (and no, you cannot rescue the polls by claiming that the only problem with the law was that it wasn’t liberal enough; when you dig down into what people mean when they say that, the idea that there was ever a majority or a plurality that was secretly in favor of Obamacare collapses).
The rage was similar to what progressives felt as they watched George W. Bush push the country into a war in Iraq. That defined and animated the anti-war movement (which is why said movement collapsed when Bush left office, and not, say, when Bush agreed to a staged withdrawal of our forces). Yes, those people would still have hated Republicans, even if there had been no Iraq War. But they would not have been as passionate, as organized or as powerful without it.
Liberals tend to write off this anger as racism, as irrational hatred of Barack Obama, or as perverse joy in denying health care to the poor, but at its root, it’s the simpler feeling that your country is making a mistake and you can’t stop it because the people in charge are ignoring the obvious. Yes, a lot of money and energy was poured into the tea party by rich backers, but rich backers cannot create a grassroots campaign unless the underlying passion is there in the voters (paging Karl Rove and Crossroads). The Obama administration created that passion with Obamacare.
I think that Hillary Clinton would have pulled back when Rahm Emanuel (or his counterfactual Clinton administration counterpart) told her that this was a political loser and she should drop it. I’ve written before about how my Twitter feed filled up with comparisons to 1932 the night that Obama took the presidency, and it’s quite clear to me that the Obama administration shared what you might call delusions of FDR. It thought that it was in a transformative, historical moment where the normal rules of political caution didn’t apply. The administration was wrong, and the country paid for that.
That’s not to say that Republicans would have somehow been all kissy-kissy with Clinton – they weren’t very nice to her husband, after all. She would of course still have faced stiff opposition in Congress, because the partisan divide in this country is getting wider and congressional districts are getting more polarized, which makes it harder and harder to do deals across the aisle, or even treat each other with a modicum of decency. But I doubt she would have had the debt ceiling debacle or the deep gridlock of the last four years, because it was Obamacare that elected a fresh new class of deeply ideological Republicans who thought they were having their own transformative political movement, and they were willing to do massive damage to their party, their own political fortunes and, in my opinion, to the country in order to take a stand against “business as usual” – business that included legislating or paying our bills.
Of course, in my counterfactual, Hillary also probably wouldn’t have proposed ambitious health-care reform; she’d have done something more modest, like a Medicaid expansion. Progressives might well say that they’d rather have the first two years of the Obama administration, followed by gridlock, than steadier but more modest achievements by a Hillary Clinton administration. And that doesn’t even get us into foreign policy, where the differences were deeper and more passionate.
To my mind, however, that would have been a much better outcome for everyone. So there’s my counterfactual for the summer: If Hillary Clinton had won, Obamacare wouldn’t have happened, and Democrats – and the country – would be better off.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.