Monday, August 8, 2011

What Might Have Been

I happened to overhear something last week that started me musing.

I was standing in line at the grocery store, and two women were ahead of me. I'm not sure what their relationship was — friends, neighbors, sisters? — but they appeared to be purchasing items for a summer cookout.

Anyway, they were talking about the debt ceiling debate while waiting their turn to check out.

It's such a shame, one said, that the two sides can't put aside their partisan bickering and put the interests of the nation first.

Yes, the other agreed. This would never have happened if Hillary Clinton had been nominated instead of Barack Obama.

The first one nodded. Hillary would have been a better president, she said.

I didn't hear the rest of the conversation. It was their turn to be checked out, and their attention turned to that. I presume the what–if discussion continued after they transferred their groceries to their car and began driving wherever the cookout was going to be held.

But I had started thinking about the proposition, and I am still thinking about it a week later.

If you recall, that was what the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination came to be about — when the only candidates still standing were Clinton and Obama. In the final weeks of the battle for the nomination, it wasn't about the economic collapse (which really didn't occur until after the party conventions) or six–digit monthly job losses. It was about misogyny vs. racism.

This much was certain. The Democratic ticket would be historic. It would be symbolic. But that was about all that was certain as the primary campaign entered the homestretch. Would the nominee be the first black or the first woman?

Racism won out — which, I have heard it said, was the reason why John McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate. He hoped to win the support of disaffected female voters.

I don't know if that is true or not, but, if it is, I suppose that, by the same logic, McCain would have chosen a minority (a black man or, perhaps, an Hispanic) if Hillary had been the nominee.

That's speculation, of course — a little gentle musing — just as it is speculation, at this time, knowing what we know in 2011 that none of us knew in 2008, to suggest that someone else would have done better than the president who was elected.

We'll never know, of course, because Hillary and John Edwards — and all but one of the others who sought the '08 Democratic nomination — didn't win the prize. Obama did.

Yet, it does become progressively more difficult to rationalize what has happened during this presidency — and, as it does become more difficult, I guess it is only natural to think of the paths that were not taken.

A different president might have faced different conditions by this time, but the conditions upon entering the presidency would have been the same for anyone — and a different president might still have called for some sort of economic stimulus.

There was a lot of pressure at the time for the new president to do something to give the economy a boost, and I think it is reasonable to assume that the new president would have pressed for a stimulus package. The amounts and priorities probably would have been different under different presidents, and it is a matter of speculation how those differences might have affected the economy of 2011.

As I have written here before, I was a supporter of Edwards early in the campaign. Given the revelations about him that have surfaced in recent years, it is hard not to imagine him being a weak chief executive at this point in his term.

I don't know what kind of stimulus package he might have pressed for, or what kind of bargains he might have been willing to make to get them — but, considering the kind of information about his private life that he almost certainly would have wanted to keep from the voters, I can't help thinking he would have been vulnerable to considerable manipulation in office.

Hillary would have been a different matter. Her life had been an open book in America for more than 15 years (and in Arkansas for more than a decade before that). She had been first lady for eight years. She didn't need to introduce herself to the American public.

Maybe what she would have needed to do in the general election campaign is re–introduce herself to the public — as a potential president.

One of the concerns about Hillary's candidacy that I heard expressed time and time again in 2008 was the suggestion that electing Clinton would mean that, from 1988 through (presumably) 2012 (at least), the United States would be governed by two dynasties, the Bushes and the Clintons. It was time for a break from the two families that had been running the country for the last two decades, I heard Hillary's critics say.

I suppose that Hillary would have had to constantly reassure voters that she, not her husband, would be setting policy.

And there was a segment of the electorate that was worried about former President Clinton being on the loose in the White House with no responsibilities, free to approach any intern in the West Wing at any time.

Issues about being the first woman president might have come up as well, but my memory of the 2008 campaign is that little was said about Obama's race. Most of the attention was on the economic disaster. Perhaps the gender issue wouldn't have been raised.

One thing that seems sure to be mentioned, at some point, is the squabble over the debt ceiling limit that appears to be the main reason why S&P lowered the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+.

Some people have mentioned the 14th Amendment and asserted that Obama should have invoked it to end the impasse, thus avoiding the impression that S&P got that Americans have allowed their politics to run wild, creating an unstable economic environment.

Perhaps they have, but that is the kind of thing a leader is supposed to prevent from happening. And a lot of people think Obama could have done that by invoking the 14th Amendment — which most people may remember for being the post–Civil War amendment that overruled the Dred Scott decision on citizenship, but, in fact, it also stated that the public debt, duly authorized by Congress, "shall not be questioned."

Legal experts disagree over the powers that clause gives a president. There are those who felt a demonstration of firm presidential leadership was what was called for while others contend that anything Obama did would have been overturned as unconstitutional.

Although he taught constitutional law before being elected to the U.S. Senate, Obama appears to be in the latter camp, convinced that the issue is resolved — although it really isn't.

Bill Clinton, on the other hand, said he wouldn't hesitate to use it — and, if a similar debt ceiling debate had occurred in a Hillary Clinton presidency, one can logically assume that he would have urged her to do so as well.

Obama could have helped better define the role of the president by invoking the 14th Amendment, as well as possibly sparing the nation the first decline in its credit rating history. Eventually, it might all have been overturned by the courts, but there is nothing, beyond some legal opinions, to suggest that is absolutely what would have happened.

If nothing else, Obama might have shaped the rules for the next debate on the debt ceiling, possibly saving himself or his successor another long, destructive legislative battle in the near future.

Sometimes presidents must be creative, must think outside the box.

They must be leaders.

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