Friday, April 2, 2010

Why Presidents Do What They Do

Bruce Bartlett pines conservatively, so to speak, for President Hillary:
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.
Jonathan Chait basically agrees; Kevin Drum dissents.  

I'm with Drum, and not just for his excellent reasons.  The fallacy here, I think, is the idea that presidential preferences on issues of public policy are the critical input into what presidents actually do.  Not so!  Presidents are driven by all sorts of things: events; the president's skills; his or her personality; historical constraints; or, most relevant here, party and the nomination process.  The evidence is overwhelming that it was impossible to win the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 without making health care reform a first-tier platform item, and once that was the case any possible nominee would have moved strongly ahead with a plan, really at about the same time Obama did.  The nominating coalition, not to mention the nominating coalitions responsible for the elections of most Democratic Members of Congress, demanded it.  That's easy to see from the actual platforms of the candidates; they all pushed health care to the top of their agendas.  And once a reform effort was underway, the logic of the situation called for persevering as long as victory was plausible.

Now, it's possible that Hillary Clinton would have failed where Obama succeeded.  We can't know how adept she would have been at handling the presidency.  Perhaps she would have failed to win support of the necessary GOP votes in the Senate for the stimulus, and perhaps that would have killed off the health care effort.  Perhaps she would have been considerably less popular than Obama, whose approval ratings have held up fairly well in the face of tough economic times, and that would have killed off health care reform.  But those are skills arguments, not arguments about her policy preferences, and of course one can argue that she would have been more, not less, skilled, and therefore passed health care reform more easily (and perhaps even with a public option and other provisions conservatives dislike).  I tend to think that she would have been somewhat less adept than Obama, but that's obviously speculative.  Guesses about their true policy preferences (or lack thereof) is speculative too, but in my opinion basically irrelevant.  Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Bill Richardson or Joe Biden, no candidate was going to win the 2008 nomination without making health care reform a top priority and acting accordingly in 2009.


  1. Since we are speculating...

    Up until Obama's recent big push on HCR it was easy to imagine HRC doing about as well.

    But... Then Obama did his Town Hall with Republicans, and then the HCR summit, and then stumped for final passage... all of that reminded me that Obama has astonishing political skills when he tries.

    When he warms up and pours on the gas he can do things that Hillary cannot do. It is like watching Michael Jordan.

  2. I just think she carried so much baggage on the issue that public resistance to whatever proposed would have been much higher, and no matter what she did, I doubt she could have overcome that skepticism.

  3. Michael,

    The thing is that if Hillary had won the nomination and then been elected by about the same margin as Obama was (which I think is pretty likely had she been nominated), then a lot of that baggage would have melted away -- and everyone now would be thinking that Obama had too much baggage to succeed as president.

  4. I honestly don't know what you're basing that on. Obama didn't have a massive, high-profile national failure on this very issue as his defining past policy outcome. He actually carried no baggage on health care at all; that's what helped him switch his position so effortlessly in the individual mandate -- it was just primary campaign positions that were at stake. I'm talking specifically on health care here. You don't think HIllary would have faced significantly more widespread (as opposed to intense, irrational) skepticism on this particular issue because of her baggage on it? From the very beginning she would have been pressed constantly about "what had she learned" from the debacle, etc., which would have put her on defense from the beginning and might have caused her to tip people off to the legislative strategy. I think it was far less likely she would have gotten comprehensive reform. It's actually one of the main reasons I voted for Obama.

  5. Oh, I see; sorry I totally misunderstood your comment, and as I look back it was clearly my fault. Baggage on this issue.

    However, no, I don't really buy the idea that her past experience on health care would have increased opposition, or skepticism, about her and health care this time around. I can buy the idea that if you think she didn't do a very good job with it in 93-94 and if you think that was predictive of her future performance as president that it made sense to (sincerely) support Obama -- or, as Bartlett proposed for conservatives, to strategically support Clinton. But I don't really buy the idea that it would be predictive of how she would do on health care in particular. Nor do I buy the skepticism thing. Surely Obama was hit, from August on, with doubts about whether the thing would ever pass; would it really have been that much worse (or mattered more) with Clinton? Perhaps, but I strongly suspect it would have been just about the same.

  6. It would be hard for public resistance post-August to have been greater, you're right. But I think it's possible some in Congress might have been harder to bring around. Additionally, would she have been able to engineer Specter's switch, and would her coattails in Minnesota have been enough to push Al Franken over the edge? All imponderables. Probably saying it's likely the outcome would have been different is overstated, but I think it possible.

  7. Obamacare vs. Hillarycare.

    Ouch. The latter does have some real problems, not so much because of the '93 HCR failure, but because of Hillary's old reputation as a nanny-state liberal.

    It isn't dispositive, but it would have remained a problem to surmount, even after the melting away Jonathan mentions.

  8. Obama and Clinton's ideal points as Senators weren't too different. I'm assigning this blog post to my ideology & party students next week which makes this point:

  9. JB as always brings a much needed systematic approach lacking in normal discussion about a question. But one independent variable in this equation was:

    Mark Penn. This disgusting creature would have been whispering in Hillary's ear "give up on health care." She has listened to him in the past, would she have done so again after Scott Brown's victory? Mark Penn was probably the biggest reason I feared a Hillary presidency. Hillary's lack of character judgement as displayed by his proximity to her ear scared me.

  10. Wow. Mark Penn is that bad?

    Do you have a link to a good article that sums up why he is malignant?

    I'm not arguing, just curious.


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