Call me a freak, but I’d be happy to travel anywhere at the drop of a hat for a chance to see Bill Clinton—so when the Big Dog turned up in a muggy college gym in Brooklyn the other day, you know damn well that I was in the house. The ostensible purpose of the former president’s visit was to endorse his friend Andrew Cuomo’s bid to become the governor of New York. He was also there, though, to make a case for the man who stopped his wife from becoming the president of the United States.
Clinton, of course, has been a kind of perpetual-motion machine in this frantic midterm-election season: appearing at more than a hundred campaign events across the country; repaying debts to candidates who stood behind Hillary in 2008; even nearly coaxing another of his pals, Kendrick Meek, the doomed Democratic nominee in the Florida Senate race, into dropping out and supporting Governor Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent, in the hope of defeating Republican Marco Rubio. In the process, Clinton has emerged as his party’s most effective spokesman, greeted warmly on ground that Barack Obama dare not tread, arguing the Democratic brief with a vigor and nuance that the current president cannot seem to muster.
But none of this was what was in my head as I stood there in that gym on Jay Street watching Clinton run through his paces. Instead, my mind kept harking back to the last time I saw him in a similar setting: in a different college gym, on the other side of the East River, on the night in early June 2008 when Hillary spoke a few minutes after her rival secured the Democratic nomination. The bitterness between her and Obama then was so pronounced that she refused to concede, refused to endorse him, refused to admit the evident reality that she had lost.
Why dredge up such memories? Because two years later, with Democrats facing potentially historic losses at the polls and the president facing a potentially crippling repudiation, it’s hard not to wonder about a pair of interrelated questions: Were the Clintons right about Obama’s defects? And how different would things be today if Hillary had won?
These questions have been asked before during Obama’s tenure, mostly if not exclusively by ardent Clintonistas, some of whom pine for the secretary of State to challenge Obama for the party’s nomination in 2012. So let’s dispense with that idea now, shall we? Not gonna happen, no way, no how, for an obvious reason: Given the dynamics of the Democratic electorate, the only way to take on a sitting Democratic president is from his left, and Hillary Clinton cannot do that, because she does not live there. Indeed, on the most potent issue that might animate a nomination fight—Afghanistan—she has been entirely complicit in the administration’s strategy, and is even to Obama’s right. Hillary in 2016? Absolutely. Hillary in 2012? You are high.
Afghanistan is also a good place to start in thinking about whether a Clinton presidency would have been significantly different from Obama’s. On foreign affairs, she and the president, by all accounts, march in lockstep in every important area of policy. (What scratchiness exists between Foggy Bottom and the White House is strictly a matter of personnel.) Her closest ally in the administration is Robert Gates. The idea that a Clinton administration would have been more progressive—or less Bush-like—on issues such as Guantánamo Bay that cause fits on the left seems fairly implausible.
On the economy, too, Clinton’s approach would likely have hewed closely to the path Obama forged. In the face of rising unemployment and cratering demand, no sane Democratic president would not have proposed a large stimulus at the outset of his or her term—and Clinton’s propensity for caution and her feel for Congress would almost certainly have made her as wary as Obama was of trying to push through something even more gigantic. Her outreach to business might have been more assiduous and adroit than Obama’s (which wouldn’t have been hard, since his has been neither), but with respect to jobs and financial regulation, any deviation would probably have been minimal. “Remember, most of the people advising Obama were Clinton people to begin with,” says an administration official. “All the same people—Summers, Geithner, Orszag—would have been on her team, all pushing the same agenda.”
What about health care? Some speculate that Clinton was so scarred by her experience in 1993 and 1994 that she would have shied away from it altogether. But people close to Hillary consider that view nonsense. “Health care was her thing, her passion, her highest priority,” says one. “She might have pursued it differently than he did, but she would’ve pursued it just as hard.” It’s possible, of course, that in the face of Scott Brown’s election, she would have acceded to the (inevitable) counsel of her Über-strategist Mark Penn to scale back her ambitions. Or, then again, she might have gotten the thing passed more quickly than Obama did. What seems dubious, however, is the notion that health-care reform wouldn’t have become a central rallying point for the Republicans—that the nightmare of the town halls of 2009 could have been avoided.
That particular nightmare was, to be sure, part of a broader and deeper facet of Obama’s time in office: the entrenched, determined, often wild-eyed opposition to, and demonization of, the president by his enemies. Looking back on Clinton’s bi-partisan proclivities when she was in the Senate, it’s tempting to think she might have had more success at finding a functional modus vivendi with Republicans. Yet that thought is rooted in selective amnesia, in forgetting the extremity of the animus that the right has always harbored toward Hillary—which is now at bay, I suspect, because she is a comfortable distance from the Oval Office. If she occupied that real estate, the intransigence and nastiness would have had a different cast (no birthers, no posters of HRC with a bone through her nose), but would’ve been no less intense.
For Hillary, then, advancing similar policies in a similar macroeconomic and partisan environment would surely have meant that her first two years would have been no less rocky than Obama’s. The question is how she would have managed the political fallout from all that—a question that brings us back to her husband, who would have been her chief political counselor in the White House and is now, in a roundabout way, trying to provide the same sort of services to Obama.
More than once in recent weeks, 42 has noted that he feels “extremely sympathetic” toward 44’s predicament. But that sympathy is laced with a sharp frustration at the way Obama has let the politics of the moment get away from him. In Clinton’s view, the president and his team were for too long blind to the loss of support that they and their party were suffering among independent voters, and have failed miserably at fashioning an argument to remedy the problem. Such an argument would confront concerns over the federal deficit head-on; it would point out Republican hypocrisy about big spending and big government, while laying out an explanation of how Obama’s programs and orientation don’t fit the caricature that Republicans have used to undermine them—that, as Clinton put it in an interview with Politico, Obama is guilty of “overreach that is trying to crush the spirit of enterprise and individual initiative, and basically turn America into some European social democracy.”
Though Clinton’s speech in Brooklyn was brief by his standards, just 25 minutes long, it deftly managed to accomplish all of that. Chockablock with statistics, it pinned responsibility for the nation’s fiscal woes squarely on the profligacy of Republicans. Rather than denigrating the tea party, Clinton declared that he shared its point of view, then offered a 30-year history lesson to support his claim that “if they want to reduce the size of government, they should be supporting Democrats, because we know how to do it.”
Would Hillary have been so dexterous if she were president right now? There is ample reason to think not. Her weaknesses when it comes to the art of politics are abundant and well known, not least by her spouse. And to be fair, Bill Clinton himself wasn’t always a master at wooing independent voters or convincing the electorate writ large of his commitment to governmental restraint; it was his manifest failure to do so that led to the GOP rout in 1994.
But two hallmarks of both Clintons through the years have been adaptability and resilience. Like all the greatest politicians, they have repeatedly been knocked on their asses but have figured out how to stand back up, regain their footing, and make lemonade—hard lemonade—out of the lemons with which voters had pelted them.
Will Obama be able to muster the same sort of pliancy and pluck? Unless almost every available poll and credible prognostication turns out to be wrong, that will be the $64 million question come November 3. During the campaign, the Clintons believed that Obama could not take a punch—and he proved them wrong. But the blows he withstood then were nothing like the one that is about to land on his jaw. Democrats had better hope that when it does, he is tougher than the Clintons thought. And that now that they are in his corner, he’ll have the good sense to ask their help and follow their example in climbing up off the mat.