Why I Still Think I Was Right to Support Obama Over Clinton

Dana Milbank writes about why (he thinks) the Democratic Party would be in better shape today if Hillary Clinton were president:

Clinton campaign advisers I spoke with say she almost certainly would have pulled the plug on comprehensive health-care reform rather than allow it to monopolize the agenda for 15 months. She would have settled for a few popular items such as children’s coverage and a ban on exclusions for pre-existing conditions. That would have left millions uninsured, but it also would have left Democrats in a stronger political position and given them more strength to focus on job creation and other matters, such as immigration and energy.

In his Friday column, Paul Krugman demolished the argument that President Obama should have “focused” on jobs instead of health care. It’s not as if Obama was ignoring the issue of economic stimulus while he “focused” on health care. His administration did get an economic stimulus package through Congress. The problem was that Obama took what seemed to be the politically cautious course and allowed the stimulus to be watered down to please Blue Dogs and Republicans. And, as a result, it didn’t do enough stimulatin’.

“Mr. Obama’s problem wasn’t lack of focus; it was lack of audacity,” Krugman writes.

It was a mistake to let the health care reform wars drag on as long as they did, and the blame for that can be spread around. But I fail to see how a complete sellout (as opposed to a significant watering down) of a major campaign pledge would have made progressive voters feel less disappointed.

Do we know for certain that a President Clinton would have put forth a more audacious stimulus plan after having kicked health care reform completely under the bus? I’m not seeing any arguments that persuade me she would have. Her (and Bill’s) entire governing modus operandi has always been to bow to special interests and settle for tweaks for the people.

To be fair, Bill Clinton presided over the sweetest economy in at least 20 years, partly because he stood up to Republicans on taxes. Credit where credit is due. But other than that, more often than not, he settled for tweaks.

Part of Milbank’s argument is that in the 2008 primary Hillary Clinton had more support than did Obama from low-income white voters, a group that abandoned Dems in the mid-terms. But as Steve M. points out, Hillary Clinton’s reign as blue-collar queen was a passing phenomenon:

Yes, we know that Hillary Clinton became the Queen of the Working Class for a few months in 2008. But how did that happen? It happened in large part because she began seeking out white voters driven by racial animus only when the delegate math showed clearly (to everyone but her) that she’d been beaten. Her efforts were reinforced by propaganda from Republicans and GOP operatives who wanted to divide the Democratic Party and possibly produce a divided convention — all of a sudden they were full of praise for her.

Now, can we discuss what they would have been saying about her if she’d genuinely had a chance to win the nomination as the primaries moved into Appalachian states, or if she’d already handily defeated Obama, or if he’d never run? She wouldn’t be the working-class queen. She’d be the Alinsky-addled anti-war radical of vintage-1992 propaganda.

See also Zandar.

I’ve seen several commentaries that pointed out that many younger people who voted in 2008 stayed home in 2010. The reason, I dare say, is that the Dems hadn’t done enough to show them that it matters who controls Congress. They rallied in 2008 for big, progressive change, and they didn’t get it. I don’t blame them for feeling let down. But I fear they’re about to learn that there are worse things than feeling let down.

The sad thing is that President Obama has delivered on more progressive achievements than any Dem president since Lyndon Johnson. That there seems little to show for it at this point in his presidency says a lot about the lack of progressive achievements since Lyndon Johnson. But I see no evidence whatsoever that Hillary Clinton would have saved the day.

27 thoughts on “Why I Still Think I Was Right to Support Obama Over Clinton

  1. Youth vote was 18% in 2008 and 11% in 2010. They’d be the most remarkable generation in history if it was much different. Midterms just don’t catch their attention.

    The major swing was among older independents – relatively low information voters, pissed at the economy, swayed by huge amounts of outside advertising and finding nothing to be inspired by in a bunch of D’s running away from the legislation they passed.

    No health care and no huge black vote? Probably would’ve been worse.

    Then again, Dana Millbank has rubbed me the wrong way for a long time now.

  2. I too had wondered how Hillary might have fared (I voted for her in the Oklahoma primary,) but I find your argument from history persuasive. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  3. Let me say, from deep in southern MO, that most of the mid-term election result was driven by pure, distilled racial animus. If Hillary was president, it would have been pure, distilled redneck sexism. If you think “Obama/Pelosi” was a powerful motivator for the peckerwood right, just image what “Hillary/Pelosi” would have been.

  4. IMO – the economy was screwed when Obama and Clinon were fighting it out in the primaries. I’m not sure when either of them found out HOW badly we were screwed, but had any candidate run on a platform of mitigating the pain of a long-lasting depression caused by a liquidity trap they would have lost the election. (Go to ‘Conscience of a Liberal’ and search ‘Liquidity Trap’ for an expert explanation. We are going to be in this mess for a while.)

    Nobody could have averted the crises we are in without massive targeted deficit spending – and Bush wars and tax policies left us in no shape to do it. Politics in Congress would have tried to divert massive amounts of stimulus to pet projects for key supporters, which would have diluted the effect of any stimulus. So it wasn’t going to happen with ANY of the candidates.

    The last time we saw a ‘liquidity trap’ like we are in was the great depression – which lasted 9 years after FDR was elected. Notice FDR was reelected TWICE while the depression was in force. (How do I underline -TWICE?) Voters were convinced that FDR was on THEIR side and not a tool of the aristocracy – this message has NOT been delivered by current democrats.

    Abandoning health care would have left 30 million without health care and the insurance industry in the drivers seat on pre-existing conditions and rescinding policies for sick people. HCR was not politics – it was essential policy. And I agree, Clinton might have sacrificed HCR – it would have been snart politics. Some of us are more concerned with progress for people than politics.

    Ms Clinton has been a good Secretary of State. She’s respected and by all reports works very hard and is extremely well-informed. My guess is that she will be asked to step up to the VP spot in 2012. I have heard nothing to support this, but it’s my gut feeling.

  5. @Michael: yes! yes! yes!

    Also, I reiterate that the Republicans stay on their rote talking points despite being demonstrably wrong/dishonest, while Democrats fail to keep hammering home the achievements of the Obama administration, which ran three pages long in a list I printed out the other day. All the hell they had to do was Google around for “Obama’s Achievements Center” and print off a few copies. Surely each Democrat could have found two or three things he/she could bear to repeatedly attribute to the President who dragged many of their sorry butts into office with him.

    Naturally the racist crew would not be moved or impressed, but it would have made for great news reporting, since there would have been such cognitive dissonance between Republicans and Democrats that certain carefully coiffed celebrity correspondents would have gotten whiplash between interviews.

    Instead, we got the most disorganized, backstabbing, ineffective campaign I have ever seen. And now Heath Shuler wants to be a leader. Where was he before? I grew up in the area he represents. It is probably true that he represents many people’s thinking there. But look at that area. Poverty, low education, isolation. Plenty of natural beauty, but not much economic development. If Heath thinks he has changed the problem areas there, he has failed to make the point to me.

    The Democratic opponents of Pelosi are just playing into the hands of the Republicans who have used her “furrin’-soundin'” name as a curse word to incite meaningless hatred of Democrats’ legislative positions.

    Obama has not deserted the moderates. We can be sure of that because there are no Progressives dancing in the streets today, and there were none before the midterms, either.

  6. If I had to pick one person to lay the blame for losing the house, I’d have to pick Harry Reid. I can’t remember a more demoralizing leader the Reid. He had control of the senate but still let the republicants run all over him, hopefully someone will step up and challenge him this term. Also I agree with Michaels analysis “the mid-term election result was driven by pure, distilled racial animus. If Hillary was president, it would have been pure, distilled redneck sexism”.

  7. Oh yeah, the Republican Party that spent most if the ’90’s investigating haircuts at airports, Christmas card lists, a land deal where the Clintons lost money, and countless other things, would have thanked Heaven that Obama wasn’t nominated, and would have worked with Hillary to create a better, more egalitarian tomorrow for the country.
    Dana, “No!” is no. Whether it was FDR, HST, JFK, LBJ, JEC, WJC, HRC, or BHO.

    CA’s Issa is practically wetting himself getting ready to break the record of stupid, pointless, and expensive ‘investigations’ from the ’90’s.
    If I were the person who sold Michelle vegetables, fruits, or manure for her garden, or clipped Bo’s nails, or bought the couple of six-packs of sud’s for Obama’s “Beer Summit,” I’d set aside a lot time in the next two years to appear before Congress.
    Any guesses? My over/under for impeachment hearings starting after Issa’s
    ‘investigations’ is 11/11.

  8. Heath Shuler’s desire to be leader makes me laugh. I love when people who have failed upward try to tell the rest of us how we ought to follow their example. If I’d shown the same proficiency in my chosen career as Shuler did in his (NFL QB), I’d be bankrupt and homeless. Of course, since Shuler was part of the entertainment industry (and that’s what pro sports is; we should point out that Shuler and the likes of Jon Runyan are the right-wing equivalent of Paris Hilton and Katy Perry), he was financially secure before he failed his way out of the NFL.

  9. “Clinton campaign advisers I spoke with say she almost certainly would have pulled the plug on comprehensive health-care reform rather than allow it to monopolize the agenda for 15 months. ”

    Ah, but the question is, would it have taken 15 months under Clinton? Would she have had a more disciplined Administration? Maybe with a better political arm she could have gotten it quicker, not ceded the narrative to the right and gotten substantial reform herself.

    The thing is… perhaps the fact that so many people hate her could have been a good thing. There would be no Hillarybots protecting her from criticism and labeling every mistep ’11th dimensional chess’ until it was too late. No one would have given her an inch – she would have had to perform from day one. But I’m just thinking out loud here.

    • Ah, but the question is, would it have taken 15 months under Clinton? Would she have had a more disciplined Administration? Maybe with a better political arm she could have gotten it quicker, not ceded the narrative to the right and gotten substantial reform herself.

      One of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost the nomination in 2008 was that her campaign was an undisciplined mess, and one of her most consistent traits as a Senator was her tendency to cave fairly quickly to whatever was politically expedient at the moment. So, although we’ll never know, I don’t see any reason why her administration would have been more disciplined and more willing to be “audacious” than Obama’s has been.

  10. By pulling out of Iraq, passing the health bill, passing 4 unemployment extensions, sticking with TARP, and by numerous smaller ticket items, O has laid the groundwork for recovery. But, let’s face it, The Bush Recession was a deep, deep one. Could Ms. Clinton have done better? I don’t know, but any democratic nominee would have done better than the GOP’s Grumpy and Whiny.

  11. tom b …I’ve got to call you on the opening achievement attributed to Obama in your comment above. The only thing Obama has done in regard to getting us out of Iraq is to honor Bush’s Status of Forces Agreement which was in place before Obama took office. I respect and support Obama and I’m not eager to bash him for something that was not of his doing. As far as Iraq or Afghanistan is concerned Obama has only changed the face and continued the folly of the previous administration. We’re not out of Iraq and the initial problem that Bush created by his preemptive invasion is still simmering just below the surface. We are still wasting billions of dollars a month trying to cover Bush’s foray onto the world stage as a great leader and military commander guy.

    Pop quiz: Who was the famous General who said…” Preemptive wars never die, they just fade away” Like we’re hoping for in Iraq.

  12. My guess is that, if we’d had Clinton, we would have had an equivalently bad midterm election, but we wouldn’t even have a healthcare bill to console ourselves with. For all that I took issue with the time it took for Obama to get something done, and how watered-down the final product, I’m convinced that Hilary, old-school-triangulator that she is, wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much, and quite likely nothing passed at all. On the other hand, she seems to be doing a very good job as Secretary of State.

    Besides, when was the last time Dana Milbank was right about something?

  13. If Eleanor Roosevelt could fly WWII would have ended sooner.

    Si mi tía tuviera ruedas, sería una bicicleta.

  14. Swami – I love it! Having read a few Hillary ‘books’ – Bernstein’s and Noonan’s and the rants of Hitcheson Hillary should never be president.

    And then there’s HCR. Assuming that 60% of our economy is driven/sustained/functions/depends on consumers consuming, the cost of health care had reached the point where it was taking a huge chunk of ‘consumption’ dollars out of consumer’s pockets. Fixing it was to partially fix the economy.

    Examples: Health insurance premiums increased 87% from 2000 to 2006. (Of course the health-care consortia saw their profits increase 428% over the same period.) Thirty-percent of bankruptcies due to family illness were filed by people who had health insurance – bankruptcies play hell with a consumer driven economy. There are more ugly data, but these are the most egregious.

  15. I’m sorry, but aside from the sheer joy of navel-gazing, the argument that Dems would be better off had Hillary won is sheet Washington Village bull—-, it only serves the typical Villager agenda of making it all about how smart they are, by trying to define a narrative that makes them the font of wisdom. See how Politico and losers like Milbank race to pile onto Obama’s troubles? You’re enabling them!!!

  16. To me, the Obama vs Clinton choice is like picking seeds out of a banana (as my HS biology teacher used to say). Both are or would hew to the corporate agenda, because that’s how the game is rigged. It’s a question of, when giving away the store, would the crooks get more office furniture under Obama, or more stationery under Hillary? It misses the point that THE STORE IS BEING ROBBED! I don’t particularly care about the finer distinctions, that the victims (you and me) would be slightly better off had the robbers arrived under one corporatist manager or another.

    And that’s all these people are: managers. Not leaders, not reformers, but people who tend, maintain, and are rewarded by the status quo.

    Now personally, I think I’d prefer Hillary’s gut level reactions to the VRWC, instead of Obama’s accomodations, but at the end of the day, they both know who paid the bills to get them into power. Hillary also struck me as being rather politically tone-deaf during her campaign, which frightens me should she ever gain executive power, although I hear she’s done well as Secretary of State.

    Slightly OT, a breath of fresh air from Canada, a reflection on our election, in Just Another Vote for Dysfunctional Polarization. Excerpt:

    …There is no Tea Party in Canada, and likely never will be. One reason is that so many Canadians still trust their government. In fact, we’re always calling on the government to fix something or other. Do we face an epidemic of Alzheimer’s? We need a national strategy! Is there a rash of youthful suicides in the Far North? The government must do something! We retain a touching faith that there’s nothing governments can’t do if only they set their minds to it.

    Sounds a bit like the country I grew up in, a long time ago.

  17. Well, counterfactuals are fun, grass is greener, etc … I’m glad you reminded us that she essentially sunk herself with a disorganized campaign. I was beginning to think that maybe I was crazy for thinking that as frustrating as Obama is, Hillary Clinton would have been much more of a mess. But where Obama’s big mistakes have to do with being overly cautious, Hillary’s have to do with chasing one tactic after another and not really focusing.

    What I find amusing is the amount of people who are also waxing nostalgic about Bill Clinton.

  18. I voted for Obama in the primary, and I regret it today. I don’t feel that their legislative accomplishments would be much different at this stage, but Obama should be held to a higher standard than Hillary because he has been blessed with exceptional charismatic powers that she can’t offer. He became president at an exceptionally rare historic moment when charismatic leadership could have truly changed the nation for the better. He squandered the opportunity. (I also agree with Gore Vidal that Hillary is smart enough not to believe what her generals tell her).

    Solely because of the force of Obama’s personality, for the first time in half a century young people were excited about politics. The acrid stench of the implosion of the Reagan Revolution was still fresh in our nostrils, hunger for change and anger at the financial sector was universal, It was a historic, potentially pivotal moment. How did he respond? Robert Gates, Larry Summers, Rahm Emmanuel, Tim Geithner… I have to quit there, I’m feeling nauseous. Yes, you need insiders, but how ’bout something, even a symbolic gesture, to give people a reason to believe that it wasn’t going to be more of the same old shit!! Anything. The best we got was Paul Volcker given a little room in the attic where he wouldn’t disturb anyone with his ramblings about rot on Wall Street.

    Honestly, with youth support unprecedented since the Kennedys, with people excited about politics who hadn’t had a reason to care in decades, with everyone left and right hungry for real change, with anyone with half a brain realizing that it was essential for the future of the country, maybe the world….. this was the best he could do? Yes, it was a tall order. Channeling enthusiasm for constructive causes is far more difficult than stirring up anger over some “them” or the other, and our national attention span has shrivelled from weeks to hours. But for chrissake, he didn’t even try. The inspiring one liners were hanging there for anybody, they should have been pure gold for the Silver-Tongued Community Organizer, how ’bout “The greatest country in the world can’t even build a functional levee any more”.

    The moment is gone, it’s too late. All the passion has been sucked up by the forces of darkness. Letting that energy slip away without even trying to channel it constructively was one of the great tragedies in American history (I’m not being hyperbolic, that’s exactly how I feel). I don’t care if it’s because he’s dumb enough to believe that all we need is a little bipartisan tweaking around the edges or if it’s because he’s a cynical poseur. I haven’t been so discouraged since Reagan was elected.

  19. ino — I agree an opportunity was squandered, but then, to have nominated HRC would essentially have been to not take the opportunity at all. And I don’t agree with Gore Vidal that Hillary is smart enough not to believe what her generals tell her. That certainly was not the case in the primaries, where her generals gave her astoundingly bad advice, and she not only took it but overpaid them for it (remember Mark Penn?).

    Faced with the same choice today, I’d still vote for Obama, but with less enthusiasm.

    Also, although I don’t know that he’ll do it, it is not impossible for Obama to turn things around and reclaim the opportunity. I think he’s got a good shot at re-election, if only because there’s no obvious, serious candidate emerging from among the Republicans who could get the support of the teabaggers but not scare off the rest of the population. A lot can happen in six years. At this same point, the Bill Clinton administration looked pretty disappointing, also, as I recall.

    Looking back at the field in 2008 — a lot of us were interested in Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson, but they went nowhere with primary voters. I have a great fondness for Joe Biden, but sometimes I don’t know what to make of him. John Edwards? Hoo boy, what a relief we didn’t go there. Dennis Kucinich is, um, IMO, not that bright. Nobody else ever says that, but I’m saying it; there’s just no depth there. And remember Mike Gravel?

  20. ino shinola,
    I just wrote a long response to your comment, but I hit ‘escape’ by accident and lost it. GOD, I HATE WHEN THAT HAPPENS!!!
    Basically, I agree with what you said, and it was well written. My question has always been, ‘how much change did everyone expect from the first African-American President?’ Just doing what he’s done, which is a lot, he’s been called every name in the book, and then some. I still fear that there’s a bullet out there with his name on it. If he came out too hard, too fast, just how long did anyone think he’d last?
    His adminstration has gotten quite a bit done. The Democrats are just lousy at telling people about it. Obama’s ‘bully pulpit’ has a volume control that goes to 10. He may have cranked it up to 7. FOX and talk radio are trying to see which of them can reach 12 on the volume control first.
    I’ll just leave it at that.

  21. Maha,
    I think that you just have more faith in the political process than I do. Your list of alternative candidates, to me, is just a list of utterly interchangeable pieces. Which one made the cut was pretty much irrelevant. The money would flow in, the money would flow up, the millitary would grow every year, we’d be at war with some brown people somewhere, corporate media would cheer and “however”,and the US would continue its decline into a dysfunctional polarized oligarchy (as opposed to a healthy polarized oligarchy). Mostly, that’s what’s happened in the last 150 years of American history. Occasionally there will be a crisis that a skillful leader can exploit, occasionally that leader will act in the best interests of the people: TR’s reaction to monopolies, FDR’s domestic policies during the depression, LBJ’s channelling of post-WWII revulsion against racism. On the other side of the coin, Reagan’s exploitation of racist backlash against civil rights, and of course there’s little Prescott Bush the XXIIIrd.
    Exploitable moments are rare, and the collapse of the financial system was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, especially occurring simultaneously with the election of a charismatic, seemingly progressive, president. Obama had an opportunity to tap in to public anger at a parasitic financial system, it was one of the few issues ever where Americans were united. That anger was inevitably going to be channeled at someone, it was just idiotic to appear to (appear to, my ass, he did) pander to the monsters who had just brought the world economy to the abyss. I can’t believe even center of the center Hillary Clinton would have been that politically deaf.

    Maybe he has a chance to be almost as good as Bill Clinton. To me that’s just more Fat-Elvis America, we’ll be choking on a peanut butter and banana sandwich any day now.

    Then there’s the war(s) and torture. Maybe Hillary would have been worse, but it’s hard to imagine how.

    c u n d gulag,
    I’ve had the same fears about assassination. I live in Nebraska, and I know the kind of insane reaction people have towards the man. Believe me, it’s insane. It’s insane. You know what? It’s insane. But the fact that he’s black doesn’t excuse the utter timidity he’s diplayed when dealing with these folks’ representatives. I’m all for reasonable discussion, but you just can’t do it with some people, did I happen to mention that they’re insane.

    You’re right about the media. Their job is to stir up dissatisfaction that won’t cause too much inconvenience for their shareholders, that’s been their job since Ronnie hosted General Electric Theater. They only deviate from that script when popular sentiment is just too overwhelming to ignore, see the 1960’s.

    But given all these elements of the status quo, “hard and fast” was the only hope he had. The crisis was there, and it was going to be forgotten in a historic instant. I know the man is methodical and deliberative, but he should be smart enough to know that America’s attention span is nearly non-existent.

    Yes, the cards were stacked against him. All Reagan had to do was go to Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980 to kick off his campaign and blow the old states rights dogwhistle and all the old Confederate zombies picked themselves off the ground and said “Gosh darn it, I am being persecuted”. That was easy, any cowboy actor could have pulled it off. Propagandists at least since Goebbels have understood how easy it is to exploit paranoia. Reform-minded Democrats have an infinitely harder task, Johnson is the only real post-war success. And the American propaganda machine is only getting more entrenched at sustaining the status quo.

    But like I said, he didn’t even try. I’m just afraid that the next crisis that could precipitate change will bring on a little more change than we really want, and it’s unlikely we’ll have anyone with Obama’s intelligence or leadership skills when it happens.

    • I think that you just have more faith in the political process than I do. Your list of alternative candidates, to me, is just a list of utterly interchangeable pieces.

      Some were more interchangeable than others, but let’s put that aside. We were talking about voting in the 2008 elections, and those were the choices. I suppose you could have written in “Robin Hood” or “Jesus” if it amused you, and ridden to the polling place on a rainbow-colored unicorn for that matter. But if you wanted to discuss fantasy alternative history, you should have said so.

      Many seem to think that if we could find the absolute, pure, noble candidate and get him into the White House, he would continue to be pure and noble and uncorrupted. But I’ve been saying for a long time that not even the purest and noblest person on the planet can completely buck the system. The system is more powerful than the president is, and the system stinks, and that’s how it is. And I think Obama did try, but he was overwhelmed pretty quickly.

      So what’s to be done? We can continue to pin our hopes on individuals and send them into the sewer, or we can try to clean up the sewer. Actually, we need a bit of both — leadership and pressure from the people to change the system. But for the time being we need to find a way to communicate to the President that caving in will not help his re-election chances, no matter what Beltway Conventional Wisdom thinks.

  22. It’s not a question of purity or nobility, it’s a question of political savvy, courage, and decisiveness. I don’t think anyone would call LBJ pure, few would call him noble, but he’s one of our greatest presidents. He was aware of the monstrous evil of American apartheid, politically astute enough to know when to take action, courageous enough to do something about it, and decisive when given the opportunity (there was also that Medicare thing). And he never had the personality cult surrounding him that Obama has/had. In Obama’s defense LBJ had accumulated decades worth of political skill and capital and Obama’s just a political pup. Maybe he tried, but I’m still amazed that someone as intelligent as Obama was so clueless about how things work in Washington. And while I don’t believe he is, he’s done very little to demonstrate that he’s not just another rat in the sewer, an interchangeable rat. I repeat – Gates, Emmanuel, Geithner, Summers, I didn’t mention Daschle and Axelrod. Sorry, that’s not fantasy alternative history, I fervently wish that it was.

    Anyway, I don’t want to get contentious, I’m just a cynical old fart who’s exhausted from ten years of expecting the worst and being right. I got my hopes up for a brief period that we had a politician, that we had a president, with Reagan’s popular appeal and some of Johnson’s moral sense and political skill.

    I truly hope that you’re right and the man still has some accomplishments in him. I really, really want to be wrong.

  23. Maybe, now that he’s backed into a corner, he’ll fight back. We’ll see. I doubt it, but we’ll see…

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