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What would Hillary have done?

By Ezra Klein

Eventually, the question was going to be asked: What would Hillary have done? Dylan Matthews had some thoughts on this earlier, but I'd observe that it depends who you ask. Dana Milbank made some calls and was told HRC would've cut her losses on health-care reform long before March of 2010:

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.

John Heilemann, who also wrote a WWHHD piece, got a more ambivalent answer:

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.

And I did a quick canvass of my own and was told that there was no way Clinton would have ever let health-care reform go if there was a real chance of getting a bill passed into law -- which there of course was.

So what's going on here? We're talking to different people, and I'd hazard a guess that we're seeing the same division that existed in the Obama White House. Talk to people in the policy shops for either Obama or Clinton, and they think that the reason to govern is to pass things like health-care reform, and they further think their bosses agree with them. Talk to people in the political shops, and they're more ambivalent about big pieces of legislation that don't necessarily win you elections, and they think their bosses agree with them.

In the Obama White House, the "cut-your-losses" position was held by Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. They wanted Obama to pare back the effort, and they were overruled. They've got their analogues in Clintonland -- notably Mark Penn -- and we just don't know who would've won that fight. My hunch is the policy people, because the logic of the situation favored passing the bill, and Clinton wanted to pass a bill. But we'll never really know.

The more interesting question is whether Clinton would've handled the health-care reform process differently. I've heard Clinton was skeptical about the prospects for bipartisanship from the very beginning, and so some suggest she wouldn't have let things like the Gang of Six drag on so long. But given that Max Baucus ran the relevant committee and he -- and other moderate Democrats -- wanted to either have a bipartisan bill or show that they gave a bipartisan bill every possible chance, it's not clear what Clinton would've done differently. The Obama White House didn't love the Gang of Six either, but they didn't really see a way around it.

By Ezra Klein  | November 9, 2010; 9:29 AM ET
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Next: Death by dichotomy


I pulled out an email last Wednesday that I sent to some friends exactly two years before on the day after Obama was elected in 2008. I had made 10 predictions. As of last week, I was correct with 7, missed 1, and 2 have to do with 2012 so they were too early to call. (I actually underestimated a couple, having 'only' predicted a 25 seat pick-up in the House for the GOP in 2010, and 5 Senate seats).

All that to say I have one new prediction....I posted on one of these boards last week how interesting I found it that Bill Clinton was out stumping for Democrats as much as he was the past couple months, in some ways even more so than Obama. The question, of course, is 'why'?

My guess....he was laying the groundwork to build some 'you-owe-me's among Democrats who survived last week, and will call in the favors in 2012...for Hillary. I really think Hillary smells blood in the water. She gave up on her dream of the Oval Office when Obama beat her in '08, figuring she would be too old to try again by the time he served 8 years.

But now she senses just 2 years in he may only last one term...and I believe she may make a another run against him in the 2012 primary. Just thinking out loud...

Posted by: dbw1 | November 9, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

dbw1, think quieter. While Clinton's recent public refusal to run in 2012 isn't dispositive, the fact that she isn't dumb IS- and thus, she knows that if a sitting President is weak enough to be vulnerable to a primary challenge, then his highest-ranking Cabinet official and the face of his foreign policy isn't going to win, either. She's not running, and Bill's campaigning- which wasn't very successful, mind you- had a lot more to do about "owing" the people who came out for Hillary (Romanoff, Meek) than collecting new chits.

As for HCR, it's true that the "institutional" elements auger that she'd have passed it, too (a Dem base that demanded it, majorities in both Houses, etc.). But I dunno, I still find that hard to square with her behavior in the campaign, and anything we can take away from the last time she had influence in the executive branch. It's not that she's "scarred" by the 1994 debacle- she's tough enough to get over a scar- it's that she gave herself the longest time frame to do HCR, she was so much more interested in winning newscycles, she had much more trouble overruling her political advisors, etc. Plus, would Hagen and even Franken be Senators without OFA's GOTV efforts? 2 less Senators could've been fatal if the Republicans maintained their obstruction strategy (And I see no reason why they wouldn't).

Posted by: colby1983 | November 9, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

This is a better journalistic piece than anything else that had been done previously in regards to this subject.

I think that she learned her lesson from the first time with healthcare- when she didn't engage the public enough to get support and the insurance companies used millions of dollars to convince the public which dragged the congress with them. Barack tried to let "congress do it's thing" and did not use his leadership on HC until it was too late for him to mold it- he just got it to pass. If he had engaged the public and created a narrative and created a feeling that we are all in this together and that this will work out for all of us- he would have gotten a better bill. I think she would have been able to do that- using the bully pulpit. Also, she is a better policy person (she realized the only way this thing works is with mandates- he played politics during the nomination with health care like many other issues- free trade, gun control, immigration, gay and lesbian civil rights, afghanistan). She realized that you don't give up things before you start negotiations- the pharmacuetical deal was both a public relations and policy disaster. Starting without a guarantee of universal coverage meant that that was a negotiating point you had to win rather than a given. You don't walk up to a used car dealership and tell them what you are actually willing to pay- you have to negotiate from position where you are willing to take some "losses" of things you care less about- not from a position where any loss is a core issue.

In short, she would have done better.

Posted by: NYClefty | November 9, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

i think it is a whole lot simpler than that.

i think bill clinton cant resist being in the spotlight.
our humanitarian, ex-president pulling in 7 million dollars a year on speaking engagements, just loves to shmooze, and be out, captivating the crowd... and keeping his legacy alive, for those who continue to see a magic aura around "the clintons."

for the amount of money he received to improve things after the devastation in haiti, things appear worse there than ever.
i hope the clintons will exit gracefully, and close out their era of mark penn, dick morris, mccauliffe...
to me, the clinton and bush years represent the decline and continuing fall of the united states.
years that characterized, looking away from accountability and right action....that have landed us in this place.
i hope hillary doesnt return in 2012.
just as now there is talk of jeb bush running.

i sincerely believe that our struggles are very much, the working through of karma from the clinton and bush years.
and president obama is paying the heavy price and doing the heavy lifting, still under clouds of unresolved karma.

people may laugh at spiritual interpretations of politics and the economy.....but it is character and right action, that writes the whole story, in my opinion.

Posted by: jkaren | November 9, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse


I beg to differ. Of course anything is possible in politics but I see Bill's campaigning as far less ominous than you intimated. It was obvious in the lead up to the elections that the democrats were having difficulties with the purple/red states/areas in the country. Many believe that this was mostly due to the economy--Obama has been recently quoted as saying that the elections was a "referendum on the economy." Certainly, it seems particularly logical that the democrats would use Bill Clinton--a southerner who has been credited with good economic times in the 90's to counter the negative unemployment numbers. This decision seems very obvious.

I think it is more likely that Hilary will replace Biden for VP than it is for her to challenge Obama in a primary. She would have to resign as SoS in like 6 months and begin campaigning--she couldn't campaign while holding the spot. Surely, conventional wisdom suggests that that would do neither her or Obama any good, even if she managed to snatch the nomination. I just don't see it happening. VP, though, I can see.

Posted by: cadal | November 9, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse


Tuesday morning quarterbacking from a hack.

WHAT IF (insert player name here) had run two steps further to the right on some play during one of last week's games?

Gibber. Gibber.

And Klein gets paid for it?

Posted by: msoja | November 9, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

"Democrats [would have had] more strength to focus on job creation and other matters, such as immigration and energy."

Yes, because facing Republican filibusters in the Senate takes a lot of energy. Let's take four important issues that would have gotten zero Republican support in the Senate: HCR, job creation, immigration, energy. The Democrats can use reconciliation to get around the filibuster for one of these issues. Which one will it be?

In the world we live in, the Democrats chose HCR. In a different world, maybe it would have been immigration. Cap and trade? No way. Job creation? How? More stimulus? I don't think so.

All in all, the Democrats and Obama did the right thing. Maybe Hillary would have delivered a few more one-line zingers putting Mitch McConnell in his place, but I bet they would have wound up in approximately the same place.

Posted by: klautsack | November 9, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Okay, let's take four issues: Job creation, immigration, energy policy, health care reform. The Republicans are going to filibuster any attempt to reform any of these. You can use reconciliation one time in the Senate. Which one do you use it for? You've already passed a stimulus bill (too small, but who's counting?). Do you use it to pass another one? Immigration reform? In the middle of a recession? How about cap & trade? Doubtful. That's right, HCR. Sounds familiar to me.

Posted by: klautsack | November 9, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

The most interesting thing about this post is the statement that Axelrod was with Rahm Emanuel in wanting the president to "pare back." This is a lie, a rewriting of history, as anyone who observed the process will remember. Axelrod was and is the maximalist in the White House. No one prevails over his will, as Petraeus found out. It's interesting, though, that he would want now to be seen as having been less keen on advancing the total healthcare makeover.

Posted by: truck1 | November 9, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I think the answer is obvious.

Hillary probably would have not seriously pursued cap and tax or health care until the financial reform bill was done and the economy was at least semi growing.

Pelosi would have screeched, but there's no way Hillary would have let Nancy kill 1/4 of her caucus like she did.

Posted by: krazen1211 | November 9, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

In a counter-factual world where Clinton wins the presidency, one factor to take into consideration: The Dems almost certainly would not have had 60 votes in the Senate at any point in 2009. Odds are that Franken would have lost, Begich probably would have lost, and Hagan would have been in a much closer election. A number of House seats probably wouldn't have flipped either.

The Obama organization and its record turnout of young and African-American voters was absolutely critical in providing coattails down-ballot. Clinton would have pulled in some additional voters into the Dem fold, but I don't think she would have expanded the field in quite the same way.

The big question is whether Clinton could have pushed the entirety of health care through via reconciliation without the aid of the 60 votes in December 2009. This strikes me as likely. It may have even resulted in an expedited process and a better bill. We'll never know for sure. It's hard to believe though that Clinton wouldn't have made health care a signature issue in 2009. She campaigned on it; she dedicated years in the Senate to the issue; and she immersed herself in the details unlike any other politician (save Ted Kennedy). Undoubtedly she also wanted to finish up the business that was started in the 1990s during the first Clinton administration. No way, no how would she have dropped the issue.

Posted by: JPRS | November 9, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Where Barack helped brought into play NC and VA (9th and 10th largest states), HRC brings in MO, Arkansas, TN and WV- and would have done better in TX owing to an even better relationship with Latin voters than Barack had. She had coattails in smaller but more states- where she would be helpful with congressional and senate seats- What makes you think that Frankin, a good friend of hers, would not have won without Barack? There were no giant AA turnout number changes in MN.

Barack was not a successful legislator in pushing any type of legislation- he always had one foot out the door on to the next thing- even in the state senate. He built almost no relationships and apparently doesn't know how to drive policy there- he gets the legislation in name- but it is gutted and works against him as it is compromised rather than bold

Posted by: NYClefty | November 9, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Excellent post, Ezra. I'm baffled that so many people think they can figure out what would have happened with so many spinning plates in the air. Nobody knows for sure, but most of the structural factors that made HCR the most promising domestic legislative project would have remained the same.

Posted by: MosBen | November 9, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

After it became clear over the summer of '09 that the Finance committee would not reach a bipartisan consensus, Democrats should have moved HCR (with a public option) by reconciliation if necessary as many opined back then. Instead, the dickering and footdragging went on for another five months and killed any momentum for the rest of the Obama agenda before the mid-term election. Gutsy strategy for the GOP and it paid off.

Posted by: tuber | November 9, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse


With respect to expanding the presidential map, perhaps (Arkansas is probably the strongest case out of those that you mentioned; hard to see though how she would have outperformed Obama in Missouri, which he narrowly lost by a mere 4K votes). None of those states though (MO, Arkansas, TN and WV) change the equation in terms of the Senate (e.g. Arkansas was an uncontested race that the Dem won easily; WV was contested, but the Dems easily retained it; MO didn't have a Senate contest; TN was an absolute blow-out with a non-viable Dem challenging a well-entrenched incumbent -- the strongest case might be Kentucky, but in order to make that case, you'd probably need a change in the composition of the electorate as a result of HRC's presence on the ballot).

HRC's friendship with Franken certainly would have merited a visit to the state, but in terms of new voters and expanding the map -- something that the Obama team invested heavily in both during the primary and general election -- it would have required an entirely new strategy that wasn't in evidence during the primary.

HRC's political team worked with the existing map, she might have pulled over some older female voters -- although in truth McCain's selection of Palin probably did quite a bit to strength that part of the equation. In terms of the youth vote and the African-American vote which were unprecedented in 2008, there's reason to believe that she wouldn't have done as well. (It's amazing to think that Obama's coattails in Georgia alone brought the Democrat on the ballot in the Senate race within 110K votes forcing a run-off. In the run-off election a few weeks later, the GOP candidate received 600K fewer votes, but the Dem candidate received 850K fewer votes -- that's a huge difference).

Clinton definitely could have won the presidency in 2008, but I'm not really seeing a strong argument for how she would have increased Democratic gains in Congress in 2008. Odds are that she would have inherited a Congress with fewer Democratic Senators and fewer Democratic House members.

Posted by: JPRS | November 9, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

She'd make a plan and she'd follow through,
That's what Hillary Clinton would do

Posted by: ArizonaGlen | November 9, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

she made two plans,
she did indeed,
and neither time,
did she succeed.

Posted by: jkaren | November 9, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

One thing I wonder about is whether the ugly town halls and frenzy of passion from the tea party would have been unleashed if Hillary were pres. I tend to think Obama became a lightening rod in a way Hillary would not have. Maybe they would have found other tactics to demonize and de-legitimize her, but, with her midwestern sensibility and long history with the public, it couldn't have been by critiquing or raising suspicions about her patriotism, unrestrained liberalism, religion, or snobbery elitism.

Posted by: wswest | November 9, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

I never said that she would have won more people in 2008 than Barack- I think that her demographics meant that she would have pulled about the same as him, remember, she won just as many votes as he did in the primaries. Her working class demographic easily makes up for what would likely be only a small difference in AA votes and student voters. In the primaries they liked the shiny flashy candidate- but when it came down to it- they were fed up with Bush and the repugs and would have gone out to vote for any Dem- maybe in slightly less numbers- again trade the two large southern states for several smaller ones. MO is clearly a state where she had an advantage- Bill won it twice in the 90s- it sits next to arkansas, and she attracts more of the moderate/independent/suburban voters. The only reason he won the primary in February was overwhelming AA support from St Louis but in the general electorate that matters less. MO has lower than the national average for AA % and higher than the national average for older voters (where she does better).

Also it must be considered that with Clinton in the race, McCain does not pick Palin- he was leaning toward Lieberman. The conservative base disappears in many states. It could even mean that discouraged repugs don't come out.

Posted by: NYClefty | November 9, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Also- the Obama team did not "expand the map"- during the primaires they won the small constituencies in Republican states (7500 people in WY) and turned them out for caucuses. He turned out ridiculous margins in AA vote in states with almost no "white" democrats (AL, MS, LA). She won SD as an example of a small state with a primary instead of a caucus. She won TN, AK, KT, WV as examples of states where nobody won 92% of a racial block.

The "expansion of the map" was from Governor Howard Dean, the former DNC chairperson's 50 state strategy- who chose Denver well before Barack was in the picture. We know how well Howard and Barack get along.

Posted by: NYClefty | November 9, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse


The expansion of the map included North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, and Iowa.

More importantly though the Obama team made a concerted effort to get new voters registered. Howard Dean's efforts went a long way towards creating party infrastructure in places where it hadn't been before -- so he deserves credit as well.

As far as the other counter-factual -- McCain doesn't pick Palin and instead picks Lieberman -- that suggests a much smaller electoral map and a much heavier investment of campaign resources in a handful of states rather than playing a big map and letting down-ticket candidates piggy-back on the headliners organization and infrastructure.

As far as the "insignificance of the African-American and youth vote" -- just in terms of THIS past election it would have had a huge impact if the Dems could have had young voters comprising 16 percent of the electorate rather than just 8. Between African-Americans, young voters, and his outreach with Latinos, we're talking at least about an extra 5 million voters who participated in 2008 who probably wouldn't have been there if Obama's name wasn't on the ballot.

Posted by: JPRS | November 10, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: caseoftheblues1 | November 10, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you have missed the really major underlying flaw. Truly large-scale populist moments in national politics happen only once every few generations in America. We are passing through one of them. Populism is typically driven by anger and that anger is not inherently conservative or liberal. It can go either way. Populism was on the table for Obama and the Democrats to grab and wield. They didn't. But if you leave it on the table, someone else will grab and run with it instead of you. This is what we are living through now. Obama totally misread history and misread the moment. It is not in his nature to be populist. Unfortunately, the economy will not recover till the end of the decade, at best, (see Reinhart's economic history work) and so Obama's Presidency is shot.

Obama is my kind of President. A pragmatic progressive focused on good policy (rather than just good politics). Unfortunately, its not the kind of President that is appropriate for the times. Very sad.

Posted by: mwgillenwater | November 11, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

But would Hillary have had 60 votes in the Senate? Given the fact that she had much higher unfavorables than Obama during the 2008 campaign, could she have been a drag on Senate candidates particularly in the red and purple states where most of the Democrats' eight pickups that year were. Hillary might still have beaten McCain, particularly after his response to the financial crisis, but I doubt she would have gotten 53% of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes.

And of course if Hillary wouldn't have had 60 Senate seats then health care reform probably would have been impossible. She might have still wasted months trying to convince Snowe and Collins to support it, though, and ended up either with incremental reform or no bill at all. As bad as the midterms were for Democrats, the enthusiasm gap (and therefore, the losses) would no doubt have been substantially larger if health care had failed. Although it never improved in popularity the way the Democrats were expecting, it did help with the base.

Posted by: dailykos2 | November 11, 2010 9:04 PM | Report abuse

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