Counterfactuals: What If Clinton Had Won in 2016

Some historians like counterfactuals. In his book Escape from Rome (Princeton University Press, 2019), Walter Scheidel analyzes counterfactual scenarios about how the Roman empire could have aborted earlier or could have been later succeeded by another European empire. In general, counterfactuals are inseparable from rational understanding. To identify a cause is to know what would have happened if, ceteris paribus, this cause had been absent.

Take economics, for example. The law of demand—when the price increases, quantity demanded will decrease—implies that without that price increase, the decrease in quantity demanded (on the same demand curve) would not have occurred. Or consider the economic concept of “opportunity cost,” which is the net benefit  (if positive) that would have been obtained from the next best alternative if the current course of action had not been taken.

Back to our historical topic. What would have happened if Hillary Clinton had been elected president instead of Donald Trump in 2016? Reflecting on a likely counterfactual scenario can help understand what were the consequences of the actual election of Donald Trump. Keeping in mind that other counterfactual scenarios are possible, here is one that seems very plausible.

Given the Congress that emerged from the 2016 election, Clinton would not have been able to do much even with the large powers of the presidency. Until 2019, both the House and the Senate would have blocked any significant change she could have tried to implement. She might, however, have succeeded generating, like Trump did, a trillion-dollar annual deficit. The economy would probably have continued the Obama recovery, as it more or less did under Trump. The absence of Trump’s trade wars would have compensated for Clinton’s vetoing tax cuts.

The 2018 midterms would have probably revealed mounting dissatisfaction with Clinton’s failures and character, so the Senate and the House would have stayed Republican. Given a Republican senate, Clinton would have had to nominate a Supreme Court candidate not very different in his constitutional philosophy than Trump’s actual choice, although his sex and perhaps his race might have been different. (This scenario assumes that Justice Anthony Kennedy would not have resigned; had he still done so, the scenario applies to his replacement too.) With a Republican Senate, Clinton would have been unable to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

A big unknown is how successful Clinton would have been at bargaining with Congress. She might very well have been more effective than Trump in the art of the political deal: she would have been more willing to trade votes (I will not veto your pet project if you legislate my pet project). Given the philosophical poverty of the Republicans, this political horse-trading would have been detrimental to liberty and prosperity.

The high-profile murders of Black men by White policemen would also have occurred. Clinton might have stoked the racial fires more among the Blacks and the wokes, instead of Trump stoking them more among the Whites. The results would not have been very different.

A Clinton administration would not have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic in a fundamentally different way than the Trump administration. She would no doubt have deferred more to the public health experts, if only because their political agenda is generally very similar. However, since the experts changed track as the crisis developed, the Clinton administration would have provided ongoing advice as incoherent as the Trump administration. The central-planning push would have been similar: use of the Defense Production Act instituting federal price surveillance and allocation of certain products, gauche attempts to control allocation of materials à la Soviet, and no disagreement with the state governments’ own “price gouging” laws. The broad results would have been the same: a hair-raising series of government failures and shortages of many products.

One difference, perhaps, is that Clinton would have more consistently and vocally blamed the shortages on “greedy capitalists.” (Trump did not use the expression, but often blamed capitalist behavior such as outsourcing and imports or even not obeying the government more religiously.) Clinton would have blamed the health care system for being not socialized enough. She would have used a more openly redistributionist vocabulary.

The big difference, however, between this scenario and today’s reality, would have been the impact on the upcoming 2020 election. Public dissatisfaction against Clinton would run high, just as it does against Trump. Voters would (wrongly) blame her for Covid-19 and (correctly) for the government’s response. (In 1916, Woodrow Wilson lost votes in New Jersey because of shark attacks.) She would badly trail in voting surveys, whatever Republican candidate was running against her.

Whether or not the small element of classical liberalism and libertarianism in the Republican Party would have survived the failure of Trump in 2016 is more difficult to ascertain. The answer would affect some components of my counterfactual scenario.

But is easy to imagine that, after four years of Clinton, fickle public opinion would have concluded that, after all, socialism does not work—contrary to the current situation in which many people seem to think that capitalism has failed again, even if Trump does not favor free markets. A related lesson is that the results of political processes are often the opposite of what the voter thinks or hopes his vote will bring about. Voting is like trying to buy a bottle of Champagne but getting a Coke instead, or vice-versa, or whatever a majority of the electorate happens to fancy at that moment.