The most important election of our lifetime
It already happened back in 2016
Every presidential election is described as the most important of our lifetime, and the 2024 race will be no exception.
People mock this cliché, but on some level, I think it does capture something significant — because the United States pairs zero-sum non-proportional elections with a rising level of polarization in a two-party system, there really is a structural increase in the consequentialness of elections. But no trend is perfectly monotonic, and something like the 2004 race (which felt very consequential at the time) looks in retrospect to have been relatively low stakes. Liberals believed deeply in our hearts that Bush would do new terrible things if given a second term, but Social Security privatization fizzled, he didn’t bomb Iran, and while something legitimately terrible did actually happen in the form of the Global Financial Crisis, it feels unlikely that John Kerry would have averted it.
Somewhat similarly, I think we understate — even in retrospect — how big of a deal 2016 was. We don’t really know yet how impactful or successful Joe Biden’s presidency will be, but one thing we do know is that the 2020 election was not sufficient to un-ring the bell of Trumpism. And there are deeper reasons related to the particulars of timing that made 2016 very important, because Democrats winning a third term in a row would have sealed Barack Obama’s legacy in a way that the real-world outcome didn’t.
At any rate, I love alternate history, and one of the nice things about running my own newsletter is I can make fanciful alternative history scenarios the topic of my column if I want to. So here goes.
O’Malley would’ve won
After Hillary Clinton’s loss, the cry came up from the left that “Bernie would’ve won.”
It’s of course impossible to know whether that’s true, but I think it’s a perfectly plausible belief. What’s much less plausible is the implication, typically intended by the Bernie stan, that Bernie would’ve won because the country is crying out for socialism. What I think is plausible is that lacking some of Hillary Clinton’s idiosyncratic handicaps (the emails, the decades-long poor relationship with the non-ideological press, the sense that she should be held responsible for stuff her husband did) would have been more than enough to overcome any disadvantages Bernie would’ve had.
I will also add that it’s been somewhat lost to the sands of time, but in the context of the 2016 campaign, Clinton consistently positioned herself to Bernie’s left on issues of guns, immigration, and race — accusing him of being insufficiently intersectional and complaining that breaking up the big banks wouldn’t end structural racism. I think being seen as more moderate on those topics would have helped Sanders a lot, and it’s too bad that he abandoned those points of moderation in his 2020 campaign.
The way I’ve always phrased this semi-endorsement, semi-critique of Bernie Would’ve Won is that Martin O’Malley would’ve won.
But to be clear, the joke here is that Martin O’Malley would’ve won. O’Malley’s not a socialist, but he’s also cautious enough on cultural topics that he gaffed himself into saying “all lives matter” back in 2015. This is just to say that by the standards of American politics before the 2016 campaign, he was a totally normal Democrat who was somewhat progressive on both cultural and economic issues without practicing faculty lounge politics. Given that he is now President of the United States, though, perhaps the most natural way to say it is that Joe Biden would’ve won.
Biden didn’t run in 2016, in part because of the tragic death of his son. But he also didn’t run because party movers and shakers weren’t pushing him. And in retrospect, that was a mistake. A not-small number of Democratic labor leaders and elected officials expressed to me that they didn’t think Clinton was a strong choice, but that they also thought Sanders was worse, and they also also didn’t think it made sense to waste their time backing some third choice who would obviously lose, so they were going to endorse Clinton. But imagine a world where Clinton doesn’t run (say, the damaging nature of the email scandal and the buckraking speeches is clearer), Elizabeth Warren sees a chance to be the First Woman President, and Sanders stands aside in her favor — so Biden does get pushed to run as the moderate antidote to Warren.
I think he beats her, picks the at-the-time-more-moderate Julián Castro as his running make, and then the Biden-Castro ticket beats Trump on an Obama Continuity platform.
Portrait of a victory
For the purposes of our counterfactual, let’s say Biden does about 1.5 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton did, securing a comfortable Electoral College majority.
Applying this +1.5 coattail adjustment to Senate races, Democrats also pick up seats in Pennsylvania and Missouri.
Note that Jason Kander aside, Republican Senate candidates generally run ahead of Trump (that’s why Ron Johnson is re-elected in Wisconsin for example) which becomes important fodder for post-election takes about how Trump was pulling the whole party down.
Interestingly, though, the gerrymanders that the GOP had in place were very efficient, so even adding 1.5 percentage points to House Democrats’ tally and winning a majority of the vote flips only four extra seats and leaves Republicans with the majority.
Still, this is a pretty big screwup for Republicans. They lost the presidency for the third time in a row, they’ve only won the popular vote once since 1988, and Trump’s scandals and incompetence have cost them their Senate majority — and with it, their chance to hold onto Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat.
Chaos in the GOP
A key thing to remember is that based on erroneous polling, almost everyone went into Election Day 2016 believing that Trump was going to lose rather soundly. And with that in their minds, leading Republicans had put quite a bit of distance between themselves and Trump. Paul Ryan, who was Speaker of the House at the time, reacted to Trump’s audiotaped confession of sexual assault by saying he would no longer defend or campaign with Trump. A substantial number of incumbent House and Senate Republicans refused to endorse him.
Now they all played a slippery game where they were also fiercely critical of his opponent, but that’s the point — they were deliberately being slippery, anticipating that he would lose and they were going to blame him.
But of course, by the same token, Trump himself would have blamed them for his defeat. Recall that this almost happened in the wake of the 2020 election, with even Fox News for a while refusing to endorse Trump’s fraud claims. The problem was that this left them losing market share to Newsmax and OANN, so they and the whole party apparatus eventually got on message. But Trump’s institutional position was much weaker in 2016 without four years in the White House and the retirement (or in John McCain’s case, death) of several of the most prominent Trump skeptics. So Trump would, I think, end up being beaten — blamed for dragging the party down with his lack of professionalism and his scandals, especially with the Access Hollywood tape (which was genuinely outrageous!) still front of mind.
Beyond that, losing three times in a row is rare. But after FDR/Truman and Reagan/Bush, we saw very substantial ideological repositioning by the “out” party as even the most fired-up activists get tired of losing. Trump, in his way, sort of ran as a moderate, but also ran as a maniac. Mitt Romney in 2012 offered a calm, appealing, competent-seeming persona but ran on a very extreme and unlikeable policy agenda. In the wake of a third defeat, I think the GOP gravitates toward something along the lines of an anti-abortion version of Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker — a business-friendly man in a suit who promises to check the left and not necessarily do very much. You’d have a chaotic conservative movement, and a Republican Party inclined for the first time in my lifetime to actually worry about trying to be more pragmatic.
The Obama-Biden legacy
And that dynamic, along with a narrow but real legislative majority, would set the stage for some important achievements.
Of course, absent the immediate crisis, there would be nothing like the $1.8 trillion American Rescue Plan that opened the real-world Biden administration. And with a narrow GOP majority in the House, there’s no chance for something like Build Back Better. I do think a somewhat chastened GOP would agree to do something along the lines of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, and you could probably also pass bipartisan corporate income tax reform. The dirty secret of Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is that lots of Democratic policy people basically agreed with the approach TCJA took to the corporate income tax, but they thought it lowered the headline rate too much (which raised the deficit a lot). It’s easy to imagine a bipartisan agreement on a structurally similar bill that nets out to a smaller rather than giant tax cut for business and offsets it with some progressive policies like expanded EITC and clean energy tax credits.
Here’s the key, though. It was during Trump’s presidency that the labor market went from “bleh” to “good.” But if you look at the trend lines, nothing actually changed when Trump took office — it was the continuation of a long, slow trend.
Because Biden was closely associated with Obama, this continuity would have made both Biden and Obama look really good. We’d be seeing the lowest Black unemployment ever, the closure of the racial gap in labor force participation, a historically low poverty rate (helped in part by the EITC expansion), a historically low uninsurance rate (helped in part by the ACA and by Biden’s ACA enhancements), and a lot of the kind of good economy, positive vibes that Bill Clinton enjoyed. Except Clinton paired that with significant rightward policy moves. Biden wouldn’t be a huge progressive champion, but the policy victories he won would all be leftward steps.
And while some of this is more modest than things Biden may be able to achieve with Build Back Better, there’s stuff Biden could have accomplished had he won in 2016 that he can’t do despite having won in 2020.
Biden would also have a huge legacy on the courts. Replacing Antonin Scalia with even a relatively moderate liberal like Merrick Garland would’ve been a huge deal. But what’s more, Biden would have been able to fill all the lower court vacancies that McConnell spent years holding open. For the first time since some point in the 1970s, the judicial branch would end up under solid Democratic control.
Right now, the sobering reality is that there is just no clear path — ever — to Democratic control of the courts. I’m not saying it won’t happen, just that it’s not clear how it would ever happen. With six seats, the ability to strategically time retirements, the GOP structural edge in the Senate, and Justice Breyer being annoying, it’s not clear what the path is. But it is clear what the path was — win in 2016.
On climate, four years of progress rather than four years of regress would’ve been a really big deal even if the progress was moderate, because time itself is a big factor in climate change. And perhaps most important of all, we’d have had a big chance to do immigration reform.
Recall that pre-2016, the (probably incorrect) conventional wisdom was that hawkish immigration politics was a net loser for Republicans. Had Trump lost, nobody would’ve been incentivized to rethink that idea. And in 2013, a critical mass of Senate Republicans was willing to vote for comprehensive immigration reform — John Boehner simply refused to hold a vote in the House. Under the circumstances, even a very narrow Democratic majority would’ve been able to get it done — fulfilling Obama’s major undelivered promise and doing something that reality Biden is almost certainly not going to be able to do.
Last but by no means least, consider foreign policy. Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran was a big deal, and tearing it up was crazy enough that there was significant internal opposition to doing so inside the Trump administration. But having taken that step, it’s now borderline impossible for Joe Biden to put the deal back together because Trump proved that Americans are untrustworthy. The dynamic around Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba is similar, albeit less stark. This is stuff that we can’t get back.
The 2018 Senate map was simply brutal for Democrats, so much so that in the real world they lost seats even in an overwhelmingly favorable national political environment.
With the White House in their hands, even under very favorable assumptions, Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, Kyrsten Sinema, and Sherrod Brown would have lost. It’s easy to imagine losing at least one race out of New Mexico, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and the two Minnesota races if the climate turned unfavorable. Republicans would also have made gains in the House since that’s what almost always happens. And that in turn means that when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, congressional Republicans would be in a position to insist on an austere fiscal response leading to a much worse economic outcome than we observe in the real world. Biden would probably be defeated in 2020, likely by a candidate who paired broadly Trumpian policy ideas with more Romney-like atmospherics and presentation.
Nothing lasts forever in politics.
But in addition to the important differences for the judiciary, for foreign policy, and potentially for immigration, I think Biden winning in 2016 rather than in 2020 makes an important difference to the trajectory of progressive politics. A weird fact about Obama is that he’s regarded as a huge failure by progressive elites even though he won twice, ended his term popularly, is beloved by rank-and-file Democrats, and is bested only by FDR and LBJ as an architect of the American welfare state. My guess is that Democrats getting to take a victory lap over the Obama-Biden recovery, avoiding the psychological trauma of Trump, and getting the exclamation point of flipping the Supreme Court would have changed that. And in a world where Obama is regarded as something closer to a progressive Reagan than a latter-day Jimmy Carter, I think it’s easier to make the case for the merits of Obama’s approach to cultural issues, and we perhaps avoid the emergence of the progressive mobilization delusion.
Or maybe that’s all wishful thinking on my part. But I do really believe that nothing that was at stake or will be at stake in 2020 and 2024 is going to equal what was at stake in 2016. The country took a huge blow, and it’s fundamentally very hard to see how we get back on track.