In recent years, there has been an interesting trend in international relations research: a renewed focus on the role that individual leaders play in foreign policy outcomes. This runs counter to traditional international relations scholarship, which argues that the system imposes powerful structural constraints on individual leader behavior. Over the past decade, however, an increasing number of scholars have focused on the first image, suggesting multiple ways in which individual foreign policy leaders affect their country’s approach to international relations.
Donald Trump’s electoral college victory in November has accelerated this research even further. At a minimum, he has sounded different from, say, a garden-variety Republican on a number of fronts. But if Hillary Clinton had won 100,000 more votes in the salient states, would things be all that different? This kind of counterfactual analysis is also a crucial part of political science and foreign policy analysis.
Over the weekend, the New York Post’s John Podhoretz argued that neither American politics nor public policy would be all that different if Clinton had won:
The astonishing answer, if you really think it through, is: not all that different when it comes to policy.
Let’s face it: With the exception of the Supreme Court appointment and confirmation of Neil M. Gorsuch, Trump has astoundingly little in the accomplishments column — especially for a president whose party controls both houses of Congress. …
What would the Republicans have done in the Hillary era so far? They would have sought to stymie her, or challenge her. …
We would have been awash in a scandal narrative that would not be quite as breathless or bonkers as the Trump White House helps to generate but would have been disturbing and unpleasant.
Moreover, the questions raised about the unprecedented nature of the Trump presidency would have been raised by the dynastic Clinton White House, featuring a candidate who got elected despite her e-mail scandals and the spouse who was only the second president in history to have been impeached.
Read the whole thing. Podhoretz is not Clinton’s biggest fan, and yet almost everything in his column rings true. The thing is, what’s not in the column matters as well.
He is largely correct about what President Hillary Clinton could have accomplished with a Republican Congress. Surely, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would have made his No. 1 goal similar to what it was in 2010: defeating Clinton in 2020. Indeed, in this scenario, there are ways in which the current moment would be more fraught with tension, as Clinton would have had to work hard to get Congress to pass a clean debt-ceiling increase and fund the government. We might still get that with Trump, but the probability would have been higher with Clinton.
And surely Podhoretz is also correct that Congress would have tried to hamstring Clinton with investigation after investigation. Remember this story from October 2016, in which Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) bragged about having two years of investigations prepped for Clinton?
“It’s a target-rich environment,” the Republican said in an interview in Salt Lake City’s suburbs. “Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”
Even in this calendar year, Chaffetz seemed primed to go after Clinton.
So yes, there are a lot of ways in which 2017 wouldn’t look all that different with Clinton in the White House. Podhoretz, however, omitted the most obvious areas where Clinton and Trump would differ: the areas of politics and policy where a president exerts the most unconstrained influence.
Focus on the rhetoric first. I seriously doubt that Clinton would publicly characterize the mainstream media as “the enemy of the American people” or tweet insults directed at critical commentators or request public effusions of praise from her cabinet or just generally act ridiculous in the public eye. To be fair, Podhoretz acknowledges this, noting that “Hillary is many things, and many not good things, but she is not a sower of chaos or the subject of infighting so constant that no one can even catch a breath before one weird story is displaced by another. She’s far too boring for that.” Still, this is not an insignificant difference.
The more important differences are in the policies where the executive ranch wields the greatest authority. I am pretty sure that a Justice Department under Clinton would not have “taken a sledgehammer to Obama’s legacy” on incarceration, voting rights, and private prisons. A Clinton administration would not engage in the kind of deregulation that, say, Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt would. A Clinton administration would not issue a dumb, self-defeating travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. A Clinton administration would not solicit bids to build a wall along U.S.-Mexico.
More generally, however, Clinton would be conducting foreign policy rather differently. She would not have withdrawn from either the Paris climate accord or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (I know she opposed the latter during the campaign, but the far more likely option is that she would have sought to negotiate additional side deals akin to how her husband dealt with NAFTA). There would be no underhanded GCC effort to embargo Qatar, because Clinton would never have been so stupid as to have given the Saudis and Emiratis a blank check to do so.
The nation under Clinton would not be contemplating the start of the dumbest trade war in this century. European allies would not be talking about the need to go it alone. Asian allies would not talk about the need to “cut the tag” with the United States. The likelihood of a competent secretary of state doing his or her job seems much higher than odds of the current one doing anything constructive. There would be no ongoing beclowning of the executive branch. And no one would be worried about the sudden collapse of American soft power, because it wouldn’t be collapsing.
If Clinton were president right now, American foreign policy would not have deviated too much from the prior status quo. She would have made America Boring Again. And given how this year has actually gone, I would take that outcome every day of the week and twice on Sundays.