I like Rebecca Traister. But her piece in the upcoming NY Times Magazine -- "What Would Hillary Clinton Have Done?" -- is a mediocre piece of thinking.
Fine, let's grant that it's impossible to say what her presidency would have been like, in no small measure because of the reasons Traister cites -- because it would be seen as having denied America not only its first African-American president, but also because it would, in fact, have kept the fantasy of Obama's magic alive. The tabula rasa, the universal mirror, wouldn't have been smudged, and would continue to provide a clear reflection of everyone's wishes. As I noted in my first post to this blog three years ago, there were deep feelings, high hopes on both sides of this contest, so somebody's were bound to be quashed. And quashed hopes are hard to forget. So let's grant that a fantasy future would have been denied for many.
And fine, let's also grant that our political culture is a mess, and that its shit would have landed on any president's shoes. In fact, let's go much farther than that. Let's stipulate that we're in the midst of a global crisis of leadership, an inflection point in modern history -- that our institutions (the nation state, the corporation, the university, etc.) are failing to keep up with the profound shifts represented by globalization and a radically transformative digital commons (much less the looming threats of nuclear proliferation and global warming). Let's stipulate that no leader of any country, no matter how competent or well intentioned, has the kind of power or control that leaders of earlier eras did.
Nonetheless, what Traister is declaring illegitimate is, in fact, perfectly sound intellectually, and even more justifiable emotionally. It is so for a number of reasons.
First, Obama's failure is undeniable (not only from a leftist pov, but simply as an effective leader). Is she saying it's illegitimate to declare that, and/or to describe where and how he has failed? If so, then her piece is nothing but the rankest kind of excuse-mongering and/or fatalism. If not, if she's okay with criticizing his myriad mistakes, then all she's really saying is, "It's impossible to say for certain that Hillary wouldn't have made the same or equal mistakes." Well, duh. But that's a silly strawman. It's certainly not impossible to say Hillary probably wouldn't have made these mistakes -- and to point to actual evidence (her far greater expertise, clarity, systems thinking, lifetime record -- as a policy-maker, as a political leader, as a negotiator, and even personally, in her strength and growth through adversity). It's certainly not impossible to point to the fact that the right way to approach this economic crisis was clearly known, and clearly articulated, and ignored (viz. Paul Krugman) -- and it's certainly not unreasonable to speculate that Hillary, always a serious wonk and a seriously quick study, would have been very likely to see that.
Most fundamentally, Traister's petty critique ignores two simple things:
One candidate articulated clear policy objectives that were more progressive than the other, who consistently danced away from clear proposals or analyses, whose main accomplishment was and remains to have voted "present." It's far from unreasonable to suppose that the former candidate would have been a stronger leader for progressive values. Could many of the same roadblocks Obama has encountered have defeated her, too? Sure -- and so what? That's not the point of the comparison. The point isn't that one would obviously have triumphed where the other failed. The point is that there's every reason to believe that one would have tried, and there is ample evidence that other never did.
Second, the contest between these two was vicious, and the viciousness lay overwhelmingly on Obama's side. The very hatred that drove Traister -- admirably -- to switch to Hillary... the very stakes that were raised by the misogyny that Obama's fratboy team and their media helpers pushed day in and day out... meant that there was a breach to be repaired. And it never was. Obama has spent virtually every waking moment of his presidency caring for the sensibilities of Republicans, but not one moment caring about the disenfranchisement of 18 million Hillary voters or the woman-hatred that helped him to the nomination. He has made zero attempt to heal the Democratic Party, or even to tend to it, to build it as a vital institution. Rather, he has continued to sit inside the increasingly small cult of his own personality (ironic, since he has precious little actual personality). He has done a generation's worth of damage to the Democratic Party, to its base, to its future. When Hillary warned of the dangers of false hope, she couldn't have been more right on the money. And we're not supposed to remember all of that?
Sorry -- but the bill of attainder on this guy is too long and damning, and the road not taken is too clear. It's not only justifiable to contrast the two, it's inevitable -- in no small measure because Hillary may well re-emerge.