Everyone likes a good, strong, firm prediction, so I can certainly appreciate the spirit in which Felix Salmon wrote last week that “Hillary Clinton is doomed — even if she wins.”
His thesis is that right now “fist-shakers around the world are enjoying a moment of supremacy over the pragmatists,” and that the tendency of populist outsider types to win will only grow stronger over time. Donald Trump is too much of a bungler to win an election, so “Hillary Clinton is going to win the battle,” Salmon says, “but her side is losing the war.”
It’s entirely possible that he’s right, and we’ll look back from January 2021 and see the brief, unhappy administration of America’s first woman president. The populist, anti-establishment sentiments that fueled both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders could grow stronger. The right-wing version of these sentiments might find a less unhinged, less corrupt, less dishonest spokesman, while the left-wing version might find a more reckless leader who’s happier to burn the Democratic Party to the ground.
But there’s nothing inevitable about it. Clinton’s victory in November is likely, yet far from inevitable. And if she wins, she’s anything but doomed. Predictions are hard, as Yogi Berra said, particularly about the future. But few forces in life are more powerful than mean reversion — the tendency of long-run averages to reassert themselves despite the perturbations of the present.
And mean reversion suggests that if she wins, Clinton is likely to have a very banal presidency — a honeymoon, a backlash, some achievements, many frustrations, a reelection, and a legacy that will be debated for decades.
Most presidents are reelected
If Clinton wins in 2016, she might, of course, lose in 2020. But if you have the chance to make an even odds bet on it, you should count on her to win for the simple reason that incumbents usually win.
Three out of the past three US presidents were reelected, as were four out of the past five. In fact, since the end of World War II, we have seen seven instances of a president successfully running for reelection and only three (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush) running and losing.
This sounds counterintuitive to many people, but in reality it’s just a special case of the general fact that incumbent politicians generally win reelection more often than they lose. The retirement of an incumbent member of the House or Senate is, famously, a key moment of opportunity for the opposition party to win the seat.
Similarly, transition elections in which a popular incumbent is term-limited out are delicate times for incumbent parties. Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton likely could have won reelection in 1960 and 2000, but they weren’t eligible. By the same token, Barack Obama would almost certainly have an easier time beating Trump than Clinton will.
But right now is the GOP’s big moment of opportunity, not four years from now.
Clinton has lots of ideas
One problem Clinton is spared due to the quirks of the American political system is agenda exhaustion. In parliamentary systems, sometimes a governing coalition runs into the problem that it’s too easy to implement its policy agenda.
Justin Trudeau up in Canada, for example, is very rapidly implementing all of the Liberal Party’s most popular and workable ideas. That’s the sensible thing to do. But it means that five years from now, the cupboard is going to be a little bare. He’ll be left with ideas that divide his own party, ideas that are unpopular with the broad Canadian electorate, or ideas that people think they want but the government can’t come up with a feasible way to actually implement.
By contrast, thanks to the separation of powers and Republican hostility to the Obama administration, Clinton’s cupboard is full of popular, moderately liberal ideas:
- Spend more money on infrastructure.
- Ban employment discrimination against LGBTQ Americans.
- Implement universal background checks before people buy guns.
- Raise the federal minimum wage.
- Provide tax credits to defray the cost of child care.
But if Republicans are in a chastened mood post-Trump and don’t want to fight, she also has a bunch of bipartisan “sensible center” ideas available to her:
- Create a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
- Do a business tax reform that creates a one-time revenue windfall through foreign earnings repatriation.
- Reduce the budget deficit by changing the inflation index used to calculate tax brackets and Social Security benefit increases.
- Boost the earned income tax credit for childless men, as both Barack Obama and Paul Ryan have proposed.
The circumstances do not seem very favorable for Clinton to enact enormous, historically consequential policy changes the way Obama has. That’s a dark side of mean reversion. But the upside is that historically significant policy change tends to be controversial and often unpopular. The circumstances of 2009-’10 pushed Obama to attempt ambitious legislation that courted overreach and blowback. Clinton, with more modest horizons, stands a good chance of having a moderately successful, moderately popular term.
There’s a backlash to the populist backlash
One of Salmon’s key premises is that the world is in the throes of a backlash — personified by Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Brexit — against the Davos-ified global elite that Clinton personifies.
This is true. But it’s equally true that Clinton is as much the beneficiary of this dynamic as its victim. Trump is exceptionally unpopular, and a more conventional establishmentarian nominee would stand a much better chance of beating Clinton. By the same token, as annoyed as Clinton’s team has been by Bernie Sanders, she beat him soundly and by doing so solidified her credentials as a broadly acceptable alternative to the diverse range of people alarmed by Trump.
Mean reversion applies to populism, too, and oftentimes one consequence of populist wins is for the pendulum to swing back in the other direction. Days after the Brexit vote, establishmentarian parties did surprisingly well in Spain’s general election.
Angela Merkel, whose poll numbers sank over her welcoming of Middle Eastern refugees into Germany, has seen her popularity soar in the wake of the Brexit vote, and pro–European Union sentiment is surging generally across the continent. Watching populists struggle to actually govern is a nice reminder of what’s appealing about boring, often aggravating establishment elites. And, indeed, in the UK itself it appears that the next prime minister will likely be the establishmentarian Theresa May rather than any of the Brexit leaders.
Events are unpredictable
To be clear, it’s entirely possible that Clinton will have a disastrous term in office and end up defeated or disgraced. A poorly timed recession would do her in, and her administration could be crippled by some unforeseen scandal or event abroad.
But by the same token, it’s equally possible that good news will give her a boost. Nobody in 1992 predicted the relatively brief but very real acceleration in American productivity growth that coincided with most of Bill Clinton’s term in office, just as nobody predicted the deceleration that we’ve seen during Obama’s presidency.
Events are the main driver of politics, and they are hard to predict, which makes politics itself unpredictable. Clinton might fail, but she’s certainly not doomed — if she wins in November, she’ll probably win again, pass some laws, and make a little history along the way.