But for a few thousand votes in the rust belt—and a last-minute assist from the FBI chief—the history of the past four years might have been very different. But what might have happened without the Comey letter or the Trump victory? Here’s a dispatch from an alternative 2020, in the form of your local newspaper’s retrospective on this month’s defeat of the incumbent president, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
WASHINGTON, NOV. 4, 2020—Hillary Clinton’s defeat in yesterday’s presidential election represents a final reversal in a year of dramatic reversals.
Not long ago, the 45th president was seen as a shoo-in for reelection. After three years of sluggish poll numbers, her administration’s aggressive response to the Covid pandemic had sent approval ratings soaring. At the same time, the president’s dramatic Oval Office address last January served to isolate Republican rivals who had denied the existence of a pandemic. GOP poll numbers further tanked when House speaker Kevin McCarthy precipitated a government shutdown in an effort to override the Clinton administration’s mask mandate. Polling aggregators such as FiveThirtyEight.com, known for their completely accurate prognostications in 2016, were predicting a Clinton victory and a Democratic recapture of the House and Senate, too.
But while Clinton’s sure-footed leadership helped avert the Covid death counts in other rich democracies, she could not stop a global recession. As unemployment shot to 9 percent, Clinton’s stimulus bill languished in Congress. Republicans revived their attacks on the president as a budget-busting spendthrift who wielded power in ways that flouted the Constitution. The controversial Paycheck Protection Program came in for particular abuse, with disdainful GOP legislators dubbing it the “Presidential Power Program.”
And, as the bill faltered, Clinton’s response to congressional resistance also did something that had appeared impossible for most of her term: unify the opposition. Ever since the defeat of polarizing 2016 candidate Donald Trump, Republicans had been consumed with an internal civil war. But when Clinton, in a breathtaking break with political norms, this year sought to use executive orders to muscle through an unemployment-compensation policy without a congressional vote, the party’s warring factions linked arms to oppose it.
It wasn’t just Republicans, either. Endangered suburban Democrats spoke out against the effort as unconstitutional, even as it was deemed insufficiently generous by members of the party’s progressive wing, who never accepted Clinton as a worthy successor to former president Barack Obama. In any event, the measures were quickly rejected in a unanimous Supreme Court decision. Adding insult to injury, the scathing opinion was written by Justice Merrick Garland, whom Clinton put on the court in 2017, when the Senate was under Democratic control.
Though polling continued to show her ahead, insiders say the bottom began to drop out during the two-week period bookended by the executive order and Garland’s decision. Her campaign never recovered.
All the same, as the 45th president prepares to leave office, her electoral collapse should not obscure the historic nature of her presidency. As the first woman president, she served as a role model but also presided over significant expansions in civil rights. Her four Supreme Court appointments—in addition to filling a vacant seat to appoint Garland, she named young liberal replacements after the retirements of Stephen Breyer, Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—were part of majorities that reversed the Citizens United decision and instituted new judicial scrutiny of voter suppression. They also effectively guaranteed that Roe v. Wade would remain settled law. (Ironically, the appointments may have helped the GOP cultivate moderate voters this year, because they moved abortion rights to a political back burner.)
In economic policy, Clinton’s record was more mixed. She inherited a thriving economy, with Wall Street continuing its run from the Obama years. But her efforts to put her own stamp on economic policy ran into a brick wall in Congress, especially after Republican gains in the 2018 midterm elections. Her White House developed a vast publicly funded infrastructure proposal, but rollouts were repeatedly eclipsed by other news, often driven by the multiple ongoing investigations into misuse of an e-mail server during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. “Infrastructure week” became a punchline among White House correspondents, as reporters preparing to cover policy announcements braced themselves for having their stories bumped from the headlines by news of some new subpoena from the likes of Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
In fact, the 45th president’s relationship with Congress was consistently noxious. Her 2017 decision to appoint FBI director James Comey as attorney general was initially hailed as a gesture of bipartisan fence-mending. But when it emerged that Comey had not notified Congress that he’d received information just weeks before the 2016 election that her e-mails had appeared in an unrelated investigation involving her top aide’s estranged husband, it turned into a scandal—even though the information had no criminal relevance. Congressional critics such as Reps. Jim Jordan and Mike Pompeo shouted “collusion.” The drama set the template for the pseudo-scandals that dominated the relationship between opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Clinton had significantly better luck on policy matters that didn’t require congressional help. In 2017, shortly after a 59th consecutive House bill to repeal what was then known as Obamacare, Clinton convened a panel of leading Silicon Valley brains to rebuild the balky back-end infrastructure that had threatened to discredit the signature Democratic policy. The idea was to associate the policy with the tech industry, then and now one of the most popular industries in America. The Zuckerberg Commission’s changes made the program more user-friendly, but associating it with the bipartisan figure proved useful in other ways, with many GOP pols using the tweaks as permission to declare victory and embrace the policy. Though the program remains very similar to the one launched by Barack Obama, it is now generally known as Clintoncare.
While foreign policy played little role in a 2020 campaign dominated by economic matters, it’s easy to forget how large it loomed in 2017 and 2018. The first years of the Hillary Clinton administration were dominated by the conflict with Russia that followed the 2016 election. Clinton stitched together a bipartisan coalition to respond to revelations of Kremlin meddling, with top Republicans embracing the effort out of a desire to distance themselves from their radioactive former standard-bearer. After the audacious US raid to capture fugitive former general Michael Flynn from a Russian-held safe house in suburban Istanbul, East-West tension reached levels not seen since the Cold War. As anxiety mounted, Clinton’s decision to dispatch South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham to deliver an ultimatum to Russian president Vladimir Putin was hailed as a brilliant stroke of diplomacy, of both the international and domestic variety.
“I’m now as loyal to her as I was to John McCain,” Graham told reporters during an emotional Oval Office gathering following Putin’s televised apology. (Not everyone was so smitten: In one of his final tweets before being banned from the platform in early 2018, Donald Trump referred to the South Carolinian as “Lickspittle Lindsey.”)
Clinton’s other efforts yielded more mixed results. Secretary of State Michael Bloomberg’s dramatic visit to Pyongyang raised hopes, but Clinton’s subsequent meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was a disappointment, with no curtailing of the Communist state’s nuclear program. And her unwillingness to completely withdraw troops from Afghanistan became a sore point within her own party. In the end, Clinton’s belief that hawkish positions represent the safest political option proved inaccurate, as right-wing media figures such as Fox News host Sean Hannity became some of the highest-profile critics of what they called “Hillary’s Vietnam.”
Still, with the Clinton family, the most dramatic storylines are often the personal ones, and during the second Clinton administration they proved no less riveting than in the first. In 2017, the marriage between the 42nd and 45th presidents appeared charmed. But following the fall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent #MeToo scandals involving other powerful men, Bill Clinton became persona non grata in Democratic campaigns. Conservatives accused major media outlets of downplaying the burgeoning national #MeToo conversation in the name of avoiding conversations about the 42nd president. Administration-watchers sensed that something had changed in the White House as well. This year’s funeral of Rep. John Lewis was particularly awkward, as cameras caught the current president rolling her eyes during the former president’s meandering tribute to the civil-rights legend.
A Red Wave
For all the unwelcome drama of her final six months, Clinton’s defeat might never have happened were it not for the surprising twists of this year’s campaign. With the GOP’s culture warriors discredited by the 2016 results, Maryland’s Larry Hogan articulated a new message, designed to make the party seem safe in suburbs and northern states where voters had viewed Republicans as out of touch with “normal-people values,” as Hogan put it during a now-legendary debate exchange with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Hogan famously called out rock musician Ted Nugent at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. The “Brother Ted” incident helped the Maryland governor attract vast sums of money from Wall Street, enabling him to thrive as better-known candidates such as Pence, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and former House speaker Paul Ryan divided a diminished right-wing vote.
During the general election, Hogan and running mate Jon Huntsman ran as moderate pragmatists, enraging Democrats who noted—not inaccurately—that the men’s records were in fact sharply conservative. The public did not share the Democratic outrage. Buoyed by relentlessly upbeat ads crafted by campaign manager Rick Wilson, the pair maintained their bipartisan image. And while the third-party campaign of Donald Trump Jr. hurt both Hogan and Clinton, the Electoral College impact of his candidacy was not equal: In northern states, many of the people attracted to his anti-globalization message were historically Democrats. In the end, Hogan was the first Republican in decades to carry states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and his native Maryland.
At press time, Clinton was said to be mulling legal action over purported irregularities in several close states, something Republicans have denounced as unpatriotic and something experts see as doomed given the bipartisan tradition of faith in polls. “Just accept it—it’s over,” said Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, a respected GOP conciliator who embraced Hogan’s candidacy early. “Not conceding is playing into the hands of our nation’s enemies. No president should ever delegitimize American democracy.”
Hogan, meanwhile, is at work assembling a cabinet. But looming over that work is the biggest question facing the president-elect: What to do about Trump Sr.? The congressional panels assembled during the Russia crisis of 2017 and 2018 went through the former nominee’s finances in minute detail, uncovering a wide range of suspicious behaviors involving his hotel business and payments to a pornographic film actress. But the Justice Department moved slowly on whether to bring a case against Trump, wary of the political fallout from jailing a vanquished rival.
During the campaign, Hogan largely sidestepped the issue, saying he would appoint a panel to examine it—and even identifying the person he wanted to put in charge: former FBI director Robert Mueller.
While the decision enables the incoming president to kick a thorny issue down the road, it also serves as a fitting encapsulation of the 2020 campaign. “Mueller is a unifying figure,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. “Who could ever oppose him? If Hillary had been more intent on unifying people, she might have won.”
This article appears in the December 2020 issue of Washingtonian.