In my Forbes column this week I ask conservatives to consider whether we would be better off today from their point of view if they had helped Hillary Clinton get the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. I build my analysis around the theory of the second best, which is well known in the economic literature but also has applications for politics, I believe. BB
Often in politics, the first and best option is unavailable, making it necessary to choose the lesser of evils. However, voters often fail to think through what is their true second-best alternative. If one's preferred candidate fails to get his or her party's nomination, people tend to assume that the second-best alternative is simply whoever does get their party's nomination. But it might be that a candidate of the other party would actually be preferable from their point of view.
The theory of the second-best is well developed in the economic literature. It says that if all the conditions for a first-best solution cannot be satisfied, it doesn't necessarily follow that the second-best solution will look anything remotely like the first-best solution. For example, economists might agree that laissez-faire is the best way for a particular market to operate. But for some reason it might be impossible to have laissez-faire in that market. It might be that a heavily regulated market would actually work better than a market that is not completely free.
In politics the second-best theory might work like this: There are three candidates, A, B and C. A and B belong to your party and C to the other party. Your first-best candidate is A, who agrees with you on all the issues. You agree with B most of the time, but with some important exceptions. You disagree with C on all the issues.
Now suppose that A is defeated in the primary and you are forced to choose between B and C. It might seem obvious that B is your second-best alternative, but that may not necessarily be the case. It might be that B is very rigid on the issues on which you disagree, while C has a reputation for not holding any position too firmly and being willing to negotiate. It might therefore turn out that C is really your second-best alternative.
I was prompted to think about this theory by something I read the other day by New Republic columnist Jonathan Chait. He was writing about how the interests of Obama as they relate to his potential 2012 Republican opponent may be different from those of liberals generally. Said Chait:
From Obama's perspective, the crazier the Republican nominee, the better. Better [Minnesota Gov.] Tim Pawlenty than [former Massachusetts Gov.] Mitt Romney, and better [former Alaska Gov.] Sarah Palin than Tim Pawlenty. [However] the broader liberal calculation is different. It's almost certainly true that liberals will want Obama to win re-election. But we have to balance that desire against minimizing the downside in case he doesn't. ... If unemployment or other conditions are sufficiently dire, even a Palin could win the nomination. So at that point, the difference between regular Republican-bad like Romney--which, don't get me wrong, is pretty bad--and Sarah Palin-bad is pretty significant. Accepting that risk in return for a somewhat higher chance of Obama getting re-elected is a risk the administration would happily take, but I wouldn't.
The reason Jon's analysis caught my attention is that three years ago I went through a similar calculation. Surveying the political landscape, I didn't think the Republican candidate, whoever it might be, was very likely to win against whoever the Democratic candidate might be. Therefore I concluded that it was in the interest of conservatives to support the more conservative Democratic candidate so that candidate would be more likely to get the nomination and become president than the more liberal one.
It was clear that the Democratic nomination was going either to Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. (I didn't take John Edwards seriously.) So which one was more conservative? It didn't take much effort to find out. The National Journal's vote ratings showed Obama to have a significantly more liberal voting record than Clinton in both 2006 and 2007. (Obama's ratings were 86 and 95.5, respectively, while Clinton's ratings were much lower--less liberal--at 70.2 and 82.8, respectively.) In 2007 Obama was ranked the most liberal senator.
I could never vote for her, but I (and others of my ideological ilk) could live with her--precisely because she is so liberated from principle. Her liberalism, like her husband's--flexible, disciplined, calculating, triangulated--always leaves open the possibility that she would do the right thing for the blessedly wrong (i.e., self-interested, ambition-serving, politically expedient) reason.
There were other data points as well. Ed Crane of the libertarian Cato Institute denounced Sen. Clinton as a "neocon" in the Financial Times. Big Republican donors like Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack were reportedly contributing to her campaign. And the right-wing Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, owned by wealthy conservative Richard Mellon Scaife, endorsed Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary. Her conservatism on foreign policy relative to Obama's was a key selling point. In the Democratic debate on Oct. 30, 2007, Clinton even tweaked Republicans, saying that they apparently didn't get the message "that I'm voting and sounding like them."
I wrote a couple of columns in 2007 telling conservatives that they really should consider lending some support to Clinton if they believed, as I did, that Obama was much more liberal than her and that whoever won the Democratic primary would probably win the general election (see here and here). After the first one, Pat Toomey of the Club for Growth (and now Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania) said publicly that I was crazy.
Let's fast-forward. Obama won the Democratic nomination over Clinton, easily beat Republican John McCain in the general election and has indeed governed as a liberal in office--at least on domestic issues. Clinton became his secretary of State.
Interestingly, contrary to the expectations of most conservatives and liberals, Obama's foreign policy has been very consistent with that of George W. Bush's. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still being prosecuted--the latter with even more vigor than under Bush; the prison at Guantanamo Bay is still open for business; the Patriot Act has been renewed by Congress with White House support; and Obama is regularly berated by left-wing bloggers for failing to implement a more liberal foreign policy agenda and essentially fulfilling Bush's third term.
Many conservatives credit Secretary of State Clinton for this favorable (from their point of view) state of affairs. Right-wing foreign policy experts like Robert Kagan publicly praise the bipartisanship of Obama's foreign policy. And James A. Baker, who served as secretary of State for George H.W. Bush, recently said that he agreed with the overwhelming majority of what the Obama administration is doing in foreign affairs.
So would conservatives have been better off following my advice and helping Hillary Clinton to get the Democratic nomination, rather than futilely wasting their efforts on McCain, Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates who could not win and were considered far from ideal from a conservative point of view anyway? (McCain was always sticking his finger in the eye of conservatives before 2008, and Romney imposed a health care reform in Massachusetts almost identical to the one later adopted by Obama.)
I think the evidence suggests that Hillary Clinton could have won the Democratic nomination with just a little bit more support, and probably would be governing significantly more conservatively than Obama. For one thing, given her disastrous experience with health care reform in 1993-1994, it's reasonable to assume that she would have stayed away from that issue at all costs.
At least some Republicans agree with my assessment. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll last October asked people if Hillary had won the election would she be doing a better or worse job than Obama. Among Republicans, 34% said yes, while only 22% of Democrats did.
So conservatives should have shifted their support to Hillary Clinton in 2008, when it became reasonably clear that it was going to be a Democratic year. Refusing to consider that option gave us Obama, and much more liberal policies than we probably would have gotten under a President Hillary Clinton.
Jon Chait comments here
. Kevin Drum here
. Matt Yglesias here
. James Pethokoukis here
. John Sides here
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