What if: President HRC’s America

Not that I need hypothetical demonstrations of how disastrously, deeply wrecked is America’s culture. There are real demonstrations all around us.

Yet over the past few years, I have asked myself numerous times whether these deep problems would be any less entrenched had Hillary Clinton won enough close-call states in the rust belt to carry the Electoral College in 2016. Not because I think Trump’s presidency has been any kind of “blessing in disguise,” as it has obviously in fact been a nightmare.

It just keeps feeling like a powerful way to check how much has really been ruined already, to ask “what if the entire Trump presidency had never been?” That seems like quite an incredible improvement compared with where we are now.

Yet, in terms of the deep and stubborn problems and what’s likely in store for us over the next decade, even this thought experiment doesn’t convincingly offer more hope.

Various examples I could find from other authors tend to reach similar conclusions as my own, in terms of “what if Hillary had become president.” Basically she would have become promptly mired in the same political cold war which has been ongoing constantly since at least 2009, with even worse prospects for reversing the losing trend.

Republicans would not have “come around.” Duh. Not with their number-one hate figure for a quarter-century as president, and Congress as well as a majority of state governments securely in their grip. They would have blamed Trump’s defeat on his being an outsider instead of “a real Republican,” shrugged it off, and carried right on with sabotage. The 2018 elections would have been a bloodbath for Democrats, with long-term consequences for e.g. another decade’s redistricting.

A Clinton presidency would certainly have been better in meaningful ways for many people suffering from the outrages of the Trump administration. But it’s just difficult to believe that this would have translated into electoral strength, any more than the slow-and-steady economic growth of the Obama administration had done. That presumably would have continued through 2019, just as it did in this timeline; Democrats would have spoken the praise which Republicans did in our timeline, and Republicans would have found complaints just as Democrats did in our timeline. Meanwhile it would have made no real difference to the problem of a united Republican opposition, organized on a permanent war footing, and able to exploit fully the many structural ways which our political systems favor them.

Most telling of all, perhaps, is the likelihood that this would have played out even if we grant Democrats enough close-call US Senate elections to have a razor-thin majority in January 2017. The Republican House majority still would have blockaded any and all legislation. Senate Democrats could have confirmed Clinton appointees, but Republicans certainly would have filibustered any Supreme Court appointment. I’m not at all persuaded that Democrats would have steamrolled them, given that even in this timeline with even more evidence of the impossibility of “finding common ground” with Senate Republicans, there are still Democrats in the Senate who don’t believe that a Democratic majority should be able to use power.

As it is, while Clinton came fairly close to winning an Electoral College majority in 2016, “What if Democrats also won a Senate majority” is less a what-if than just pure fantasy.

More likely, she would have struggled even to get cabinet appointments confirmed, by a McConnell-run Senate; judicial appointments would have been dead-on-arrival and the Supreme Court would still have eight justices. Right now, on that other Earth, Republicans would probably be looking forward eagerly to a complete takeover, with even more tools available to make it permanent than they had in 2017. Maybe even a Republican-dominated Constitutional Convention.

I can’t be quite as confident of the 2020 Clinton reelection campaign’s odds, just because presumably COVID-19 would have overturned things about as much as it did in this timeline. A Clinton administration would have provided some actual, effective leadership, but COVID-19 is tough (and Republican nutcases would be in control of even more state governments) so Hillary would have had her work cut out for her.

How that would have affected things, I don’t know. You have to do a really bad job not to get some kind of “rally round the flag” bump in approval ratings under these conditions. But, the asymmetry of American politics would have limited it; Democrats and unaffiliated voters are far more willing to believe that a Republican is doing a decent job than Republicans are willing to believe this of a Democrat. Republicans would sabotage Clinton’s efforts on every front, and their propaganda would persuade millions that the damage was her fault.

Very possibly that other 2020 election would hinge on the identity of Republicans’ nominee. But, again, even if Clinton hung on for a second term, what options would there be for altering the larger course of the cold war? Republicans would have the US Senate firmly in their control, and good prospects for even more aggressive gerrymandering in 2021, even if a 4-4 Supreme Court deadlock allowed a patchwork of lower court rulings for and against partisan gerrymandering. Republicans would quietly (or quite possibly not even quietly) revel in ghoulish anticipation that Democratic justices’ declining health would, soon, restore a 4-3 Republican majority on the Supreme Court, even if Clinton won a second term.

All of this, of course, in a world where a very disastrous election outcome was averted, unlike in our own world.

Realistically, a decades-old program of corrosion and capture just does not hinge on one or two or even three elections, and the last good opportunity to thwart it, to some significant extent, was squandered a dozen years ago.

Now… Well, here’s yet another article about how even if Joe Biden can get more votes, in enoughstates, it will be a challenge getting sworn in as president and even if he accomplishes that, America will be a broken country with toxic politics and no prospect for healing any of it. I struggle to rebut any of that.

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