The Clintonista fallacy

It seems to me that some conservatives are misconstruing the meaning of Barack Obama’s willingness to offer key posts to veterans of the Clinton administration. These conservatives apparently see the selection of Clintonistas as strong evidence that Obama was not serious about “change” and that his administration is unlikely to veer far left of center.

It is true that the Clinton administration can, in many important ways, be viewed as not far left of center. But it doesn’t follow that an Obama administration populated with Clintonistas would follow that model.

Such a view is fallacious at several levels. First, there is no reason to suppose that the Clinton administration would have looked much like the Clinton administration if it had come into being under the present circumstances. Bill Clinton came to power when the economy was coming out of a mild recession. And after two years, Clinton was mightily constrained by a Republican Congress. Obama is coming to power as we head into a deep recession, and there is little reason to think that Congress will soon constrain Obama. Why conclude that, in Obama’s shoes, Clinton would have acted with anything like the caution he displayed on domestic issues?

Second, even if we suppose that Bill Clinton was ideologically moderate, rather than merely constrained, one cannot assume that this was true of those who served him. It seems more reasonable to believe that most of these folks were simply acting within the limits imposed by their president.

Third, it is probably erroneous to claim that, in ideological terms, there are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama wings of the Democratic party. In terms of domestic policy, there was very little difference between the two candidates during the primary season (I seem to recall that Hillary favored a slightly more radical health care reform plan). On foreign and national security policy, there were some differences. However, as I have argued before, it’s not clear that they were the product of anything other than political circumstance. Clinton was stuck with certain positions which seemed to be in her interest at the time she took them, given her status as a Senator and as the very early front-runner for the 2008 nomination. Obama had taken different positions that made sense for someone in his position — a non-incumbent candidate for the Senate facing a primary fight in a very blue state and later an insurgent candidate for the presidency.

If one accounts for these circumstances, is there any basis for denying that the real difference between Obama and Hillary came down to identity politics and little more? The fact that, after his election to the Senate and before the situation in Iraq turned dire, Obama was moving closer to the Clinton view of Iraq (and indeed that of President Bush) strongly suggests that opportunism, not ideology, drove the signature difference between Clinton and Obama. So does the fact that Clinton did what she could (short of humiliating herself with an “apology”) to distance herself from Bush once the tide turned against us in Iraq, and accused Gen. Petraeus of “spinning” when he tried to explain that the surge was turning the tide back in our favor

It is fun to throw back at Obama certain of his quotes about bringing in new players, and it is even more fun to chide Obama’s less astute lefty supporters to the extent they complain about a “betrayal.” But it is quite premature to infer from the selection of Clintonists that the left gained little by working to elect Obama or that Obama will serve up a third Bill Clinton term.

The selections of General Jones and Secretary Gates for key national security posts, if they come to pass, are a different matter. But even here, it would be premature to conclude from these selections that Obama won’t change course on national security policy (I have argued that he won’t change it quickly and dramatically, but I base this on the logic of the situation, not on personnel decisons). Gates seems to have been fine as President Bush’s Secretary of Defense. But before that, he co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force on U.S. relations towards Iran. It recommended that the U.S. directly engage Iran on a diplomatic level regarding Iranian nuclear technology. Gates also served on the Iraq Study Group about which the less said the better.

It is doubtful, then, that Gates would provide much of a brake on an Obama administration that wished to veer left on defense and national security policy, especially if he hopes for an extended stay at the Pentagon. It seems at least as likely that he would provide “cover” to such an administration. And given the fact that his stay may not be long in any case, it will be even more important than usual to keep an eye on how Obama staffs the positions below Secretary.

Even so, conservatives could reasonably have feared doing significantly worse than Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, and I confess to having done so. When it comes to the selection of Clintonistas, and of Hillary herself, it’s far less obvious that we’re exceeding reasonable expectations.

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