Anything can happen in two years time. For now, though, it looks like Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States.
The reasons are obvious: opposition from within the Democratic Party will be too little too late; and, on the off-chance that someone else’s candidacy actually does take off, the Party leadership, ever mindful of Wall Street’s concerns, will crush it — faster than a Massachusetts or Vermont Senator can say “Slick Willy.”
With less than two years to go and with Democratic voters fed up with President Obama’s craven “bipartisanship,” his wars, and his eagerness to do Wall Street’s bidding, it is surprising that sparks of rebellion don’t flare up frequently.
The hardly ever do however; not in public view, anyway. The unconcealed intra-party wrangling that went on last week as the deadline for averting another government shutdown loomed was a first for the Age of Obama.
In a healthier political climate, it would be a portent of things to come. In the world as it is, it was more likely a flash in the pan. These are Democrats, after all; their first and last instinct is to knuckle under.
On the Republican side, the party’s grandees, even dearer to Wall Street than Clinton Democrats, will either succeed again in keeping their useful but refractory idiots in line or they will not.
If they do, the Republicans will again nominate someone their base will despise. We saw how that worked out in 2012.
On the other hand, if the base gets its way, those “uncommitted” voters on whom the outcomes of American elections depend will be scared off again, as well they should be.
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But does anyone really want a President Hillary? Maybe a few unreconstructed Friends of Bill do, and some feminists with tunnel vision. No one else can stomach the idea.
Nevertheless, Democratic voters and unaffiliated “moderates” will acquiesce. In neoliberal times, acquiescence is what politics is all about.
And so we have global warming, 24/7 surveillance, increasing inequality, perpetual war and a host of other horrors no one really wants.
There is money to be made from these things, and their impact on the larger economy is considerable. Careers are tied up with them. Still, there is not a right-minded person on the face of the earth who would not want them gone if getting rid of them were of no consequence to their personal ambitions or to their bottom line.
In actually existing democracies, self-interests regularly trump the public interest. This is why there is no voting away the evils acquiescence enables.
And this is why, etymology and political theory aside, the demos do not rule in actually existing democracies. By constraining the options and threatening economic hardship if results don’t go their way, the pillars of global finance rule in its stead.
Even the mightiest democracies are therefore little more than vassal states in thrall to a transnational Empire of High Finance, dominated by American capitalism, but the master even of the American state.
In these conditions, it is hardly surprising that elections cannot address fundamental problems.
They do have consequences, however. At the very least, they crowd out other, potentially more constructive, political initiatives. This problem is especially acute in the United States.
Because we live under a duopoly party system comprised of Democrats and Republicans, our elections are “exceptional” for the narrowness of the choices they offer. And since one choice is bound to be better or worse than another, our elections make lesser evilists of us all.
They are about damage control, and they are not always good even for that.
For most right-thinking Americans, it is axiomatic that Democrats are better (less bad) than Republicans. They are too — in many respects. But are they then always the lesser evil all things considered?
The problem is not just that lesser evil voting tends to make available choices worse over time. The recent history of the Democratic Party provides ample evidence of this phenomenon.
The larger problem is that voters tend to be myopic, focusing only on candidates’ personal qualities and not on the larger impact of their victories or defeats. When this more appropriate perspective is assumed, it is not always clear which candidate actually is the lesser evil. Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney in 2012 is a case in point.
Counter-factual history — playing “what if….” – is usually, at best, a pointless diversion. Sometimes, though, it can be instructive.
The present is one of those times. Reflecting on how, if at all, things would now be better or worse had Obama lost to Mitt Romney in 2012 can help clarify what will be at stake in 2016.
In all likelihood, Hillary Clinton will be a shoe-in then, because Democrats are too pusillanimous to buck the inevitable and because Republicans won’t be able to find an acceptable candidate.
But what if the inevitable doesn’t happen – maybe because revulsion at the prospect of a full-fledged restoration of the House of Clinton is too much even for normally acquiescent voters to bear?
Improbable as it may be, it could happen. It has lately become clear that even a restoration of the House of Bush is possible. An astonishing and thoroughly alarming thought, but efforts are now underway to make it happen. Jeb is “actively exploring” the prospect.
Never has there been a better argument for guilt by association. The case against Bill Clinton’s wife doesn’t come close to the enormity of the case against George Bush’s brother.
Imagine: Hillary v. Jeb — the Lady Slickster versus someone who shares genes with the worst President ever, a war criminal and a destroyer of nations. Chester A. Riley got it right: “what a revolting development this is turning out to be!”
But, alas, we mortals are only playthings of vengeful gods; and, since the gods do have standards, Obama et. al. must surely have pissed them off many times over. Therefore maybe they will forget about the odds and sic a Republican President, maybe even a Bush, upon us again.
They are sadistic enough to do that, and their taste for the absurd seems to know no bounds.
Even a tiny chance that a Republican might win in 2016 is distressing to contemplate. But we do need to think about it; in particular, we need to reflect on whether, all things considered, it would be a worse outcome than the likely alternative.
It is not obvious that it would.
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To speculate constructively about what would have happened if…, it is important, first, to specify the parameters; what else would be different? In this case, there are two possibilities that need to be taken into account.
One is that Romney’s win – or, rather, Obama’s loss – would have brought down enough Senators to cause the Democrats to lose not just the White House, but the Senate as well. The other, more plausible scenario would have Romney now in the White House and the Senate still under Democratic control.
Obama’s signal achievement in his first term is supposedly the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. Republicans believe this as adamantly as Obama apologists do.
The Republicans’ signal achievement has been to frustrate Obama’s every move as best they could. They succeeded, almost totally, through sheer obduracy.
Obamacare was their one defeat. They campaigned against it relentlessly. They still are.
But the issue hardly came up in the 2012 campaign. Evidently, Obama’s handlers decided that there was no percentage in dwelling on that purported triumph; Obamacare was too unpopular.
The Republicans had a more insidious reason for avoiding the issue: even the dullest among them realized that it would be unwise to bring it up because Obamacare was really just Romneycare made over.
With only minor changes, the plan Team Obama pushed through Congress is the plan Romney implemented in Massachusetts when he was governor there. He got the idea from the Heritage Foundation, a favorite think tank of the GOP.
Heritage’s intent was to preempt genuine health care reform by making the status quo less onerous, or at least less embarrassing.
The idea was to extend health insurance coverage in a way that would give the private health insurance industry and Big Pharma a windfall, and that would leave the for-profit health care industry and other health care profiteers undisturbed.
Because most Republicans are not rabid, ideologically driven free-marketeers, they don’t necessarily mind when government programs actually do some good. It is not its natural place, but the GOP is capable of swinging back into “compassionate conservative” territory when the Zeitgeist demands it.
President Romney would have had to make cosmetic changes to Obamacare to appease his base. But that would not have been beyond his means. His placating skills were well honed in the 2012 campaign, and they transfer easily.
Therefore, Obamacare, or some semblance of it, would probably still be with us if Romney had won, and Republicans wouldn’t be nipping away at it as they now are. If anything, the general idea would probably now be better secured.
Were Romney in charge, banksters and war criminals – including braggarts like Dick Cheney and George Bush — would be no less likely than they now are to live out the remainder of their sorry lives without ever being brought to justice.
Also the fossil fuel industry would be no less inconvenienced by efforts to keep them from bringing the world to ruin. Corporate America generally would be no worse off. And inequality would be no more on the rise.
Self-declared neocons might now be more empowered than they presently are, but they were never exactly disempowered in the Clinton State Department.
Obama put liberal interventionists in key foreign policy positions; in his second term, he brought them into special prominence. For a while, it was possible to think that, compared to the neocons, this was a change for the better. Only the willfully blind still do.
“Humanitarian interveners” seem kinder and gentler than their Bush-Cheney era counterparts. But if there are disagreements on fundamental policy questions, it takes a keen eye to discern them. Obama’s posse is every bit as dangerous as the one it replaced.
The list goes on. Romney represented himself as the Best Friend Forever of Congress’s (and Time Magazine’s) King Bibi; an exaggeration, perhaps, but not far from the mark. Obama, on the other hand, reciprocates the contempt Benjamin Netanyahu has for him. It is far from clear, however, what difference this makes; it hasn’t made any to date.
For fear of the vaunted (and overrated) Israel lobby, Obama doesn’t dare do the right thing where Israel and Palestine are concerned. Romney would have been better placed to lean on his good buddy. He might, by now, have even tried a little “tough love.”
There is no evidence supporting this speculation, but it should be born in mind that Romney’s situation was different when he was trying to get on Sheldon Adelson’s good side. Were he actually President, he would likely feel obliged to pay at least some heed to the national interest as well.
Had Romney won, would we be any more likely than we are now to be embarking on new Middle Eastern wars, or to be recklessly provoking the Russians into another Cold War? Would we not also be “pivoting” towards Asia, with all the risks that involves? Would we be any more surveilled or more imperiled by global warming? It is hard to see how.
When all else fails, Democrats point out that their mid- and lower-level appointees are generally better – more competent, less reactionary — than Republican appointees. True enough: score one for Obama.
And, to give credit where credit is due, score several more for Obama’s surprising decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and, so far as possible (on his own), to remove the embargo.
By doing so, an American President has, albeit only tacitly, finally acknowledged the plain fact that the Cuban people and their government have succeeded in saving their revolution from five decades of American sponsored counter-revolutionary aggression.
For this historic breakthrough, it seems that Pope Francis deserves credit too, as do diplomats from several countries in this hemisphere and elsewhere.
It helped too that the younger generation of Cuban-Americans is, by all accounts, increasingly fed up the dumb immobility of their anti-Castro elders, and that influential American business interests are fed up with losing out to European and Asian competitors.
Finally, it is relevant that the embargo was a vestige of the Cold War that ended more than two decades ago, and that the five decades old embargo on Cuba made no sense even from Day One – except for its impact on partisan politics in southern Florida.
Still, Obama did it, and there is no reason to think that Romney would have done the same.
To be sure, even the most informed observers would have said the same about Obama a few days ago. And had Romney been the one to make the move, he’d have a better chance of overcoming opposition in Congress than Obama will. It would be like Nixon in China.
It is never possible to be entirely sure of anything when speculating counter-factually. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Obama beats Romney – big time – on this one.
We mustn’t get carried away, however. Obama’s flicker of genuine statesmanship hardly cancels out the effects a Romney victory in 2012 would likely have had on the Republican and Democratic Parties.
For as long as Obama has been in power, Republicans have had one overriding concern: to wreck his presidency. Had Romney won in 2012, they would have had no choice but to serve the Empire of High Finance in less ignominious ways. They would have been obliged to govern.
While Republicans have been dragging Obama down, Democrats have been standing by their man. To this end, they spent the past six years neutering themselves. Supporting Obama means not fighting back.
Obama apologists point out that at least part of the reason for Obama’s unpopularity in certain quarters is his race. No doubt, they are right. The narcissism of miniscule differences is a factor too, of course; but it doesn’t explain the ferocity of the Right’s animosity.
However, the sword cuts both ways. Obama’s race is also why so many others pull their punches.
The kinds of liberals who showed nothing but contempt for Lyndon Johnson fifty years ago treat Obama with kid gloves.
For getting lots of people killed for no defensible reason, they both merit unbridled contempt; LBJ more than Obama if only because he got more people killed.
He got what was coming to him too: there was a time when he could hardly set foot outside the White House. Obama, on the other hand, remains welcome nearly everywhere, and nowhere more than in the kinds of liberal quarters where LBJ was most despised.
The fact that the draft was still on, and that Johnson got more Americans killed than Obama so far has, explains some of the difference. But not as much as the fact that Johnson was a Southern white boy with an oafish bearing, while Obama is Ivy League respectable and of mixed race.
The irony is that LBJ did more to fight poverty and to improve the condition of persons of color than Obama would do in a thousand lifetimes. For the poor, Obama has done nothing except make the problems associated with inequality worse; for persons of color, he has done nothing at all – besides being there.
Yet still liberals still award him a get out of jail free card.
After the 2006 election, the Democratic Party showed signs of halting the long march to the dark side that Bill Clinton had gotten underway. The leadership immediately pulled them back – for the sake of electing a Democratic President.
They got what they wished for, and Democrats have been heading in the wrong direction ever since. Now they even have a Clinton, a nominally different one, back too –acting as their lodestar.
Had Romney won, the pre-Obama Democratic Party might by now have come back to life. It might even have brought real politics back along with it.
There might then be a tad less political civility around, but the health of the body politic would be vastly improved. Civility is an overrated virtue.
Even so, lesser evilists who gravitate automatically towards Democratic candidates, and who were led to support Obama over Romney in 2012 for lesser evil reasons, have legitimate concerns.
Where there are judicial appointments to be made, Republicans can be counted on to be worse than Democrats. This is especially relevant to counter-factual speculations about the 2012 election because another right-wing Supreme Court Justice could do the country incalculable harm.
But it is not clear how much weight to attach to this consideration. Had Romney won in 2012, the country would, so far, have dodged that bullet. Perhaps we will get all the way to 2016 without the issue arising.
On the scenario that sees Romney in the White House but the Senate still under Democratic control, the chances that another Republican jurist of the Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas type would be empowered to visit harm upon future generations of Americans would be diminished in any case – provided, of course, that the Democratic majority would rise to the occasion and withhold consent.
Since it is safe to suppose that even a victorious Romney’s coattails would be short, this is the more likely counter-factual scenario.
Indeed, it could well have happened in the 2012 election. Suppose that only a few votes changed in key states or that a few miscreants had been up to the kinds of shenanigans at which Republican Secretaries of State excel. We know from experience that, in these circumstances, Democrats get poor marks for sticking up for their own side. Al Gore is living evidence of that inconvenient truth.
If a President Romney had to face a Democratic Senate, we would be pretty much where we now are with respect to judicial appointments and everything else. But, unlike now, Democratic voters would feel free to let their outrage overflow.
Romney would therefore find himself in something more like LBJ’s situation than Obama’s – and he would be similarly constrained. Something like this happened to George Bush after 2006.
Outrage has been overflowing a lot lately – in Occupy Wall Street, in demonstrations protesting police killings of African Americans and the impunity the legal system accords the killers, and in countless less conspicuous ways. In this counterfactual scenario, outrage might by now have taken a far more constructive turn than it so far has in the Age of Obama.
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Who, then, was the worse choice all things considered? We can only speculate. But my money is on Obama.
If as now seems inevitable, the choice in 2016 is between Hillary Clinton and some still unknown Republican, the comparison will be much the same, except that the evil on the Democratic side (and presumably on the Republican side as well) will be qualitatively worse. It would hardly matter who the Republican choice is – whether it is someone corporate media will deem grownup and sane or someone so loony that they wouldn’t dare.
Will the worry over judicial appointments be more relevant then that it has been so far during Imaginary Romney’s first (and only) term?
This too is doubtful, because chances are that, after the next election, the Senate will come back under Democratic control.
If it does, Senate Democrats should be able to hold the line against the little Scalias and Thomases that a Republican would likely nominate. They wouldn’t even need to take lessons in obduracy from their Republican counterparts. Circumstances will compel them to defy their inherently cowardly natures, and to act instead like self-respecting vertebrates.
It is true that after the Democrats’ 2014 shellacking, a Democratic Senate in 2016 is no longer as sure a thing as it once seemed.
But the kinds of circumstances that made 2014 a banner year for the GOP make the Democrats’ chances for regaining control of the Senate a lot better than fifty percent the next time around. There will be more Republican and fewer Democratic seats susceptible to changing hands; and, among the Democrats running, there will be fewer Blue Dogs not worth voting for – even if only to defeat marginally more noxious Republican opponents.
The lesser evil case for Clinton is therefore easily as flimsy as the lesser evil case against Obama. Even those who think it somehow passes muster ought to concede that no one need pull any punches on its account.
Yet punches will be pulled – on its account and because, in just the way that Obama broke a color line, a Clinton presidency would break a glass ceiling.
These are not irrelevant considerations in a racist and sexist society. But they are far from compelling.
No good has come from letting racists and other retrogrades stifle all but their own brand of anti-Obama activism.
Neither will any good come from abandoning struggles against war and inequality and impending environmental catastrophes, or efforts to restore and strengthen basic rights and liberties, just because there are idiots out there who hate Hillary for the wrong reasons.
No good came from giving Obama a pass. Because Clinton is even worse, the consequences of giving her a pass would be worse as well. Her better half set the Bush-Obama era on its present track; now she is poised to accelerate the pace.
She is a horror waiting to happen.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).