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Should Conservatives Have Supported Hillary Clinton in 2008?

02 Apr 2010
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

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 also noticed that some conservatives were saying nice things about Hillary--people like National Review editor Rich LowryWeekly Standard editor Bill KristolNew York Times columnist David Brooks and even right-wing columnist Ann Coulter. Here is Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer:
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.

 

Republicans did support Clinton

but they didn't do it for the reasons you suggest above . . . they took a shorter term view:

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,334669,00.html


Clinton was probably more likely than Obama to triangulate...

... but I don't think it's accurate to say that she would have been substantially all that different from Obama.

First off, that National Journal "most liberal" ranking was pure bunk: "I actually browsed through the scorecard National Journal used to determine the ranking. There are precisely two scored votes where Obama took the liberal position and Clinton took the conservative. ... So there you have it. Obama is more liberal than Clinton because he voted with John McCain, the most likely Republican nominee, and Tom Coburn, one of the Senate's most conservative members."

Second off, Clinton made health insurance reform the centerpiece of her campaign. I think she would have done something quite a bit like Obama has done, implementing the Heritage Foundation/Romney approach.

Not to mention that there isn't anything that Obama has done that wouldn't have been acceptable to all mainstream conservatives a few decades ago (or, in the case of RomneyCare, a scant few years ago).

So this is a fun counterfactual, but I don't think that there is that much there.


What grade would give Obama thus far

Very interesting column. I'm a regular reader of this blog, and my one and only complaint is that you should post more often. I want the Daily Bartlett!

Your Forbes column left me wondering - what is your opinion of the Obama presidency thus far - would you venture to give it a passing letter grade?

As for me, I am pleased with how things are going in foreign policy, especially the more vigorous pursuit of the war in Afghanistan.

Regarding the economy, while things are still bad, they are no where near as terrible as they were when he took office. In short: the Stimulus worked.

And I think HCR, with the individual mandate, was absolutely necessary. I live in Texas where family premiums went up 90% in the last 10 years - and I assure you that family earnings did not keep pace.

Ideologically I am a moderate, not a conservative - I give Obama a solid B+.


I get your argument, but . . .

I have two issues with it.

First, it's much easier to vote for the opposition party when it looks like your party will lose a presidential election if your party is nominating the incumbent. When it is a contested primary on both sides like it was in 2008, it's difficult to cross-over to the other side knowing that there may be a candidate of your party you would have otherwise voted for but for the political tide of that year.

Second, no one knows the future. What if a "John Edwards-like scandal" had broken concerning Obama closer to the election? The Dems would have been sunk notwithstanding the fact that it was Democratic year. Also, what if the economy had in fact picked up instead of melted down or a terroist attack had occurred.

I think these things are all part of the equation and need to be considered.


Actually wingnuts did support Clinton

Rush Limbaugh told his supporters to vote for Clinton in the primary to drag it on for a long while. Limbaugh's peons were the primary reason why Clinton won Texas and Indiana in the primary, and why Ohio was won by Clinton by 9% instead of 3-4%.

Democrats also noticed that, which is why Obama won the primary. Hillary Clinton's biggest mistake was assuming that her biggest challenge came from the right and not from the left.

But the primary reason why people like you wanted to support Clinton was because it would validate your idiotic thesis that Democrats "took blacks for granted", which they never did since the New Deal. Blacks since the 1930s have been voting their interests in supporting the Dems, and due to that Southern racists moved to the GOP.

By nominating and electing Obama, the Democrats smashed that GOP line of thinking forever. I hope they enjoy their racist tea party garbage.


If Hillary Clinton had become

If Hillary Clinton had become president, she could not have stayed away from health care: she campaigned on it, and Congress would have begun work on it whether she liked it or not. Which is what Congress did in Obama's case, and your seeming assumption that Obama was the main impetus throughout the past year keeping reform alive is totally at odds with the history. Obama stayed in the background until the final stretch, and the calculations were almost certainly political ones: at this late date, failure to pass the bill would cost the Dems more seats in Congress than passing it. President Clinton's political figuring would almost certainly have reached the same sum.

A similar lack of daylight is a near certainty between Obama's other initiatives and those that President Clinton would have pursued: the only thing more conservative than Obama's stimulus package would have been one that was 100% tax cuts (instead of the 40% that was actually the case). And given the comical lack of strings attached to Obama's bank bailouts, the only more conservative thing would have been to simply give the banks and firms the money, no questions asked (I don't really see any plausible Republican government, let alone Clinton, simply letting the banking system fail).

Contrary to the caricatures of conservatives, Obama has hewed as close to the center as it is possible to expect a Democrat to do.


Clinton's Conservatism is Overrated

There are two arguments here. The first is that Clinton would have been less committed to her liberal programs. This is based largely on the Bill Clinton presidency, but it's important to remember that President Clinton came out of the gate substantially to the left of Obama. He became the poster child of triangulation AFTER the GOP took Congress in '94.

The second argument is that Clinton is inherently more conservative than Obama. This is supported largely with dubious National Journal scores. During the primary, Clinton was uniformly to the left of Obama. Her health-care plan was stronger, she wasn't willing to inaccurately trash-talk Social Security finances, etc. On foreign policy, she has always seemed more hawkish.

In neither case do I think the policy differences between the two candidates would have had much effect when faced with the reality of governing, but it's good to remember who was actually the more conservative candidate. Overestimating Obama's liberalism is a mistake that many on both the right and left have made (see, e.g., firedoglake), but it's a mistake nonetheless.


Clinton's Campaign Showed Her to be a Poor Manager

Hillary Clinton is bright, sharp, and certainly has the sharp elbows needed for politics. From all I've read, she's quite the policy wonk when she's involved in an issue, and becomes very informed on the details.

That being said, one only needs to follow her campaign (and the emails that came out of it) to realize that she is a horrible manager. There were multiple cliques in her campaign, each vying for power. When things would come to a head, Clinton would settle the issue via explosion. This is a terrible managerial style. It suppresses critical thinking and drives away bright people who don't have the time or temperament to constantly play inside politics.

George W. Bush had the opposite problem. He could make a firm decision quickly and up front, but he was lead more by his preconceived views (or Dick Cheney) than with reality. So he was decisive, but had no idea what he was doing. He also found it nearly impossible to change course when reality reared its ugly head. The results were disastrous.

It has been pointed out multiple times that Obama requires that people sitting in a meeting express their opinions. He then distills all the information and makes a decision. There is no doubt who is running the show. And there is no doubt that he is sharp.

You may disagree with his political views and policies, but this is the strongest and most competent manager we've seen in the White House for quite a while.




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