19 December, 2006

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda: Hillary Clinton & the Architecture of Belief

It is almost axiomatic of presidential politics that legislators (i.e., Senators and Congressmen) have a tougher time getting elected than do executives (e.g., Governors and CEOs like Mr. Bush). It's not all that difficult therefore, to put party affiliation aside and nonetheless arrive at the dispassionate conclusion that Senator Kerry's candidacy was doomed not just because he said he "voted for the Iraq war before [he] voted against it", but because by the very nature of his job he was conditioned to seeing such statements as meaningful.

And so it is with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and her most recent have-it-both-ways statement on hypothetical history:

"If we knew then what we know now there certainly wouldn't have been a vote and I wouldn't have voted that way."
Which is to say, among other things, that HRC would have voted for the Hussein boys to continue raping young girls and terrorizing their families. That's a rather remarkable admission for an ardent feminist... though hardly a surprise.

Many on the left would agree that actions have consequences. (I said "many", not "most".) And so it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to demand that the hypothetical consequences of such hypothetical actions be fleshed out--preferably by the person proposing a personal virtue for which we cannot by definition hold her accountable in the real world. HRC says she would not have voted for the war? OK then, it is fair to ask: what might have been the consequences of her hypothetical vote?

It's a question that is both easy and difficult to answer and the ever-calculating HRC is counting on that asymmetry. Easy: U.S. troops would not be bound up in a messy situation. Difficult: what could have happened that never did? We can't say for sure... because it never happened and never will. We cannot go back "knowing what we know now". Life doesn't work that way. If it did, Adam, stricken and banished just east of Eden, might have said something like this:
Eve, you were duped. You were foolish to believe the snake and I was stupid to listen to you. We now know the snake was Satan. The apple was a ruse. Let's go back in there, knowing what we know now, unbite the apple and unpick it from the tree. Maybe God won't notice and everything will be just ducky and we can go on roaming around naked and innocent and happy.
It has been my experience as a professional scenario planner that people--including extremely smart, responsible people--find it difficult to develop credible, logically consistent hypothetical futures. It is even more difficult to get them to agree on one. Senator Clinton knows this and is counting on it. She can therefore make a claim about something she coulda, shoulda, woulda done--just like other non-executive aspirants have done before her--and reap any rewards (ooh!, she's thoughtful, not stubborn, nuanced not one-dimensional, flexible, not obsessed) without having to answer for anything concrete. Academics have similar latitude--one reason why the overwhelming majority hold left-wing views.

Ten thousand bloggers may write about what would, or could, or should have happened if we had not gone to war, painting both rosy and dire pictures. Yet in every case, the answer is something we will never know for sure.

Having proposed a past alternative that by definition we cannot check, it is up to Senator Clinton to flesh out an answer. (I'm hardly holding my breath.) But we do know one thing: a return to the blissful 1990's illusion that we are at the end of history--on the verge of the effortless transformation of human nature and the eradication of evil through the inexorable spread of free market capitalism alone is not one of the more plausible outcomes of such a vote.

Actions have consequences, including actions that signal to our enemies what they are already predisposed to believe: namely, that we have become weak, vacillating and self-indulgent. (Not at all unlike the final days of the Roman Empire as some astute KMaru readers have noted in comments.) As a presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Senator Clinton's statement, while cleverly couched in the hypothetical past, is no less a signal of weakness than if she had declared it by executive fiat.

Two other quick thoughts on a tangent:

1) If affirmative action is such a good idea, why don't we apply it to elected offices? Why don't we give Hillary an extra five points for being female and Barack Obama an extra seven for being black? (Better yet, let's appoint a committee to argue over the numbers.)

2) Not that it really matters, but "Hillary Rodham Clinton" anagrams out to: HILL LIAR NO CANDOR MYTH