Hillary and Choice

Would President Hillary Clinton have saved Roe? Probably Not

Monday evening an unknown individual inside the United States Supreme Court leaked a draft decision written by Justice Samuel Alito which would explicitly overturn the landmark decisions Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. This would mean the end to a guaranteed federal constitutional protection of abortion rights and at least 22 states, including Missouri, would almost immediately ban abortion entirely. This has been the animating force behind the conservative legal movement for the last two generations and this is their grand triumph which will only embolden the court to go even further. The language of Alito leaves the door open for reconsiderations of Obergefell v. Hodges which legalized same-sex marriage and Lawrence v. Texas which invalidated state laws criminalizing homosexual intercourse, and if you compare his dissent in Obergefell to his draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization it’s not hard to imagine the Court deciding to also “Send the issue back to the states”. The Constitution of the United States of America is in the hands of 6 members of the federalist society, we are entering a new era of American politics.

President Biden has made clear that his administration has no plans to protect abortion access. In a statement the morning after the leak, the President said, “If the Court does overturn Roe, it will fall on our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman’s right to choose. And it will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November.  At the federal level, we will need more pro-choice senators and a pro-choice majority in the House to adopt legislation that codifies Roe, which I will work to pass and sign into law.” It’s important to be clear about two points. The first, is the most important and it is that the president’s party almost always has a bad midterm. Data from fivethirtyeight.com shows a familiar pattern (that I also wrote about in 2021 here) “Overall, in the post-World War II era, the president’s party has performed an average of 7.4 points worse in the House popular vote in midterm elections than it did two years prior. Therefore, since Democrats won the House popular vote by 3.0 points in 2020, Republicans can roughly expect to win it by 4.4 points in 2022 if history is any guide…Indeed, in the 19 midterm elections between 1946 and 2018, the president’s party has improved upon its share of the House popular vote just once. And since 1994, when (we would argue) the modern political alignment took hold, the president’s party has lost the national House popular vote in six out of seven midterm elections — usually by similar margins (6 to 9 percentage points) to boot.”

It took 9/11 for George W. Bush and Impeachment for Bill Clinton, as well as voter coalitions that no longer exist, for them to break history. It is extremely unlikely that President Biden, given his approval ratings, economic conditions, and redistricting will outrun history. The second point is, when Democrats had 60 Senators there were not enough votes to codify Roe into law. In 2022 there are not realistic opportunities to win 60 Senate seats, meaning the only avenue to codifying Roe or expanding the Court or any potential remedy would be through abolishing the filibuster which cannot find 50 votes in the US Senate. Currently in the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is campaigning for the lone anti-choice Democrat in the House while he has a viable progressive challenger in Jessica Cisneros. This is the state of our opposition party, these individuals are the last line of defense.

There are some who have used this dark moment which represents the greatest contraction of civil rights since the end of Reconstruction to deliver an “I told you so”. These people would like to do historical revisionism about the 2016 election and have taken to blaming the left-wing in this country for the state of the Supreme Court. Generally, it’s not worth engaging in this discourse, but I’ve decided to do so today if not for the sole reason that these narratives are actively hindering the success of any centrist let alone any liberal project in this country. Candidly, we are rapidly approaching different entirely preventable disasters and we shouldn’t waste any more time promulgating useless ideas. So, I’m willing to address the skyscraper sized elephant lurking around this discourse, What if Hillary Clinton had won. It’s probably the most frequent hypothetical among liberals, and my read of the alternative is blessed by hindsight but is not informed by omniscience. This is what I believe would’ve happened, it is not exhaustive of everything that could’ve happened.

It’s important to note that Clinton didn’t lose because of insufficient support from the left. In 2008, Clinton did 13 public campaign events for then-candidate Sen. Barack Obama. In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders did 41 public campaign events for Clinton during the general election. In 2008, 25% of Clinton primary voters supported Sen. John McCain. In 2016, only 12% of Sanders supporters voted for Trump, meanwhile 13% of Obama’s 2012 voters supported Trump. Clinton lost because she was the most unpopular Democrat to run for President in the history of modern polling and would’ve been the most unpopular candidate period if not for Donald Trump. In terms of ideology, it’s hard to remember now but a critical number of voters wrongly perceived Trump to be more moderate than Clinton. To imagine a world in which Clinton wins the election is not difficult because in spite of her weak electoral performance and rock bottom approval ratings, she very nearly did win. Let’s imagine that James Comey does not release his October letter which hurt Clinton among late deciders and Clinton narrowly wins Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida bringing her to 307 electoral votes. Let’s assume, for Clinton’s sake, that her improved margin extends down ballot which would mean victories in the Pennsylvania and Missouri Senate races and probably an additional 2-3 house seats. This would give her the exact same evenly divided Senate the Biden has but a GOP controlled House. So, what would have happened to Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat?

President Hillary Clinton would submit her nominee to the Senate Judiciary Committee, likely Sri Srinivasan of the D.C. Circuit or Jane Kelly of the 8th Circuit. The nomination would advance deadlocked from the committee, NeverTrump Republicans like former Sen. Jeff Flake would not adopt their current faux moderate posture without Trump as a foil but would return to the vapid anti-Clinton rhetoric that dominated the 90s. It is likely that Republicans would filibuster this Supreme Court nomination, led perhaps by Sen. Ted Cruz who would now likely be heir-apparent for the 2020 nomination or Sen. Jeff Sessions who instead of being disgraced former Attorney General would be an ideological leader in the GOP Conference. Even without the filibuster, the nomination is in jeopardy as Sen. Manchin is non-committal about supporting the nominee and no GOP Senator wants to cast the deciding vote in favor. Senate Majority Leader Schumer undertakes an effort to abolish the Senate filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, it fails 47-53 with Senators Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, and Joe Manchin voting with all Republicans. President Clinton is forced to withdraw her nomination and through a compromise with Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley nominates then Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, a “moderate” Republican. He is confirmed with all 50 Democrats and 16 Republicans voting in favor. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Republican appointed by Reagan, opts not to retire while Democrats control the Senate and Presidency. Justice Ginsburg again postpones retirement, fearing that she too will be replaced by a conservative compromise candidate.

In 2018, Democrats suffer sweeping loses in the midterm elections. Republicans elect Josh Hawley in Missouri, Rick Scott in Florida, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, and Kevin Cramer in North Dakota just like in our reality. However, Republicans also pick up West Virginia and Montana while holding Nevada as Democrats narrowly squeak by in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. There is no special election in Minnesota, Democrats don’t force Al Franken to resign and launch at attempt to discredit the MeToo movement as liberal figures like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey find themselves accused of sexual misconduct. This is done partially to protect the tenuous Democratic majority, but also to discredit renewed criticism of former President Bill Clinton as his connections to child sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein become public knowledge during a special counsel investigation lead by Robert Mueller was launched by the House early in the administration. On January 3rd, Mitch McConnell becomes Senate Majority leader once again with 55 seats. Democrats make gains in the House, although still in the minority they make gains in the suburbs bringing their numbers just above 200.

In 2019, Several Republicans announce their candidacies for President including Sen. Ted Cruz fresh off his double-digit re-election, Governor Nikki Haley, and Sen. Tom Cotton while Speaker Paul Ryan forms an exploratory committee before ultimately deciding against a run. Donald Trump is speculated to be a potential candidate, but instead successfully pivots his failed run for President into a New York Times best-selling novel with accompanying docuseries chronicling his rise to the GOP nomination self-describing as a “populist revolutionary”. Clinton herself faces a spirited primary challenge from Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley (the lone member of the Senate to endorse Sanders in 2016), and he wins the New Hampshire primary as well as a few caucuses, but he is never seriously close to overtaking Clinton and she wraps up the nomination before mid-March. The pandemic still rages across the globe in 2020, in the United States the pandemic is made worse by a severe economic recession. President Clinton and the GOP Congress deadlock on several fronts and settle on a relief package that mirrors the 2009 recovery, however it is not passed until May leaving millions scrambling to compete for resources from overwhelmed nonprofits. Infections are lower than our current reality because Clinton never disempowers the CDC and is prepared for a pandemic level event, but anti-lockdown activity begins earlier and is more violent as people are animated not just by anti-science conspiracy but also anti-Clinton sentiment. In September, Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies, and Republicans hold open her seat for the duration of the 2020 Election. President Clinton is likely defeated, not since the election of 1820 have there been 2 successive 2 term presidents of the same political party. If Clinton did win re-election, it’s hard to imagine Democrats having better midterm prospects in 2022 than what they face today. When she does lose, Republicans appoint Attorney General Pam Bondi of Florida or perhaps law professor Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Anthony Kennedy retires shortly thereafter, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh is elevated to his seat. Roe and Casey are functionally though not explicitly overruled in a 5-4 decision, with Sandoval joining the liberal minority in dissent.

Seeing as a Clinton victory might not have been enough to avoid our current reality, what would’ve needed to happen to avoid this nightmare? You don’t have to get into butterfly effect level science fiction or have had psychic super power to be able to imagine how things could’ve gone differently. If:

  1. At any point between 2009 and 2015, if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had opted to retire, abortion rights, voting rights, labor rights, and many civil liberties would not be facing near certain annihilation. In 2013, Ginsburg had battled cancer twice by the age of 80 and the political environment in Washington was increasingly polarized. It was clear to contemporary writers that should Republicans capture the Senate, something they were heavily favored to do given the history of midterm elections, because of rising partisanship it would be unlikely that a liberal successor could be confirmed. At the time, the balance of the court was 3 hard right conservatives, 2 center-right conservatives, and 4 liberals. The few liberal victories of the 21st century were generally 5-4 decisions, and the disappearance of any justice would have a dramatic impact on constitutional law. Furthermore, the disappearance of a liberal justice would of course mean a hard right turn in the court at least until a conservative vacancy appeared. Ginsburg, understanding the stakes of her decision opted not to retire. When she died, as an attempt to shield her legacy perhaps realizing the disastrous effect of her decision to not retire, sheepishly relayed a message that she knew would not be honored. Ginsburg had no reason to believe her replacement would not be a woman, as President Obama had nominated both Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Ginsburg had no reason to believe that her replacement would be less liberal, as Sotomayor actually disagreed more with Kavanaugh, Thomas, Alito, and Roberts than Ginsburg did in the 2019 term. There was no reason for Ginsburg to do what she did, and that decision more than anything else is responsible for this moment.
  2. In 2014 and 2010, Democrats lost several close Senate races and spent tens of millions of dollars on blowout losing races. If the party had decided to abandon clear losers and directed that spending elsewhere, Democrats might’ve had a Senate majority in 2016 when Scalia died. Which would’ve meant a liberal Supreme Court, not just a not as far right one, but a genuine liberal majority which hasn’t existed in generations. Let’s look at the 2010 races, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (AR-D) spent $12 million for 37% of the vote, Gov. Charlie Crist (FL-I) and Rep. Kendrick Meek (FL-D) spent a collective $23 million to receive 29.7% and 20.2% of the vote respectively, and Robin Carnahan (MO-D) spent $10 million to receive 40.6% of the vote. Meanwhile Democratic Senate candidates in Illinois and Pennsylvania failed by less than 2% of the vote. What might an extra $45 million split between the two of them have meant? So, what about 2014? Mark Pryor (AR-D) spent $14 million to receive 39% of the vote and Alison Lundergan Grimes spent $18 million to receive 41% of the vote. Meanwhile, Democrats lost Alaska, Colorado, and North Carolina by less the 2.3%. If those races had broken Democrats way, they would’ve certainly had enough votes to Supreme Court Justice. Unfortunately, this pattern has only intensified as Democrats burned a whopping $250 million dollars to be beaten by double digits in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Alabama while losing several close House races.
  3. In 2009, Democrats could’ve attempted to codify Roe. For 3 months, Democrats had a filibuster proof majority and then just shy of it the rest of that congressional term. There were likely enough Pro-Choice Republicans to overcome the objections of Anti-Choice Democrats, and even if compromise legislation had to be crafted it is a near certainty that it would’ve been better than our current system which has allowed states like Texas and Mississippi to ban abortion without outright doing so. It certainly would’ve been better than allowing a conservative court to decide the fate of abortion. But the fault on this one doesn’t lay solely with Harry Reid, but with President Barack Obama. In 2007, he said at a speech to Planned Parenthood that the first thing he’d do as President was sign the “Freedom of Choice Act” which would’ve codified Roe. Before he’d been President 100 days, it had been completely dropped from his agenda and he said of the bill that it was “not my highest legislative priority” and apparently not a priority at all.

That leaves just one burning question, what can we do now? Some of you will be tempted to say “vote!” or some variation of “elect more Democrats”. I’d like you to just consider this, for a moment. In 2018, more than half of Americans could not name a single Supreme Court Justice. Although most Americans (71%) blame Vladimir Putin and Oil companies (68%) for the rising cost of oil, however a majority also blame President Biden (51%) and Democratic Party policies (52%). Most voters don’t perceive politics through the lens of obsessive partisan observers, and often are more likely to see correlations and be unaware of longer-term trends. This is all to say that there is a critical mass of voters who will say “Why should I be convinced that my support has mattered or will matter? I’ve always voted for Democrats, and they just beat Trump so why is this happening.” If Abortion rights disappear while Democrats control congress and the Presidency, the fine details will be lost and I don’t think it’s logical to assume that the response among voters will be a Democratic surge. Although, you should support candidates who support abortion rights when given the opportunity. It’s important to keep protesting, donate to abortion funds to support people who are going to have trouble finding access, and testify against state efforts to criminalize abortion.  But beyond that, what else is there? Not much that isn’t 10 years too late. What’s really important is for the left to develop a sense of our place of history and work towards a long-term vision for society. The right knows who they are and where they are going and have been working for it since the New Deal. We must have that same determination and will or there will come a day when we wake up in a country that we do not recognize as our own. We may already be there.