Will Democrats learn from Clinton's mistakes?

On many occasions since the Democratic victory in November, I've felt like I've been transported back in time; I'm young and everything is possible. It's 1993 again. As Democrats begin to see the glimmer of possibility that, two years from now, they will again hold the reins of power, that critical first year of the Clinton administration has become the dominant point of reference for thinking about what to do with such an opportunity.

And so a half-dozen arguments that I had all but forgotten, buried under the artificial unity-in-opposition of the Bush years, have roared back to life. A staggering percentage of conversations about how liberals should govern in the future seem to revolve around counterfactuals or "what if?"s from the last time Democrats acquired power: What if Clinton had pushed health reform at the beginning of his first term, rather than trying to appease business by passing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) first?, populists ask. Imagine if Clinton had proposed welfare reform first, ahead of health care, to establish his centrist credentials, the Democratic Leadership Council crowd responds. What if Labor Secretary Bob Reich had prevailed over economic advisor Bob Rubin, and public investment rather than deficit reduction had become the priority?, ask others, such as TNR's Jonathan Chait. Clinton should have avoided the issue of gays in the military, is a common refrain.

In all of these thought experiments, an answer is assumed: If only the other choice had been made, health care reform would have passed, or the Republican takeover in 1994 would have been averted, or activist government would not have been discredited. And, further, all are assumed to offer direct lessons for a Democrat who takes office in 2009: If you want to do health care, push a strong proposal in the first days and don't bother trying to buy off business. Or, we shouldn't worry too much about the deficit. Or, avoid divisive social issues. It's as if the last 14 years were just bad dream. Regaining the presidency, we can simply return to decisions that turned out badly in 1993, and then choose the path not taken.

There has been a recent flourishing of this kind of historical reasoning, sometimes known as "virtual history," among popular writers such as Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson, as well as cranks like Newt Gingrich, co-author of a counterfactual trilogy on the Civil War. But, for the most part, historians reject counterfactual arguments. All we really know is what happened; we can't know what would have happened if just one factor was changed. What other things might have been different, if, say, Clinton had shelved NAFTA or made welfare reform a priority? And if counterfactuals make for weak history, they are even worse as a guide to the present or the future.

E.H. Carr wrote the classic rejection of virtual history in his 1961 masterpiece, What Is History?--"one can always play a parlour game with the might-have-beens of history"--but he also explained its appeal. He noted that no one asks what would have happened if William the Conqueror had been defeated, in the way that they ask whether the Russian Revolution could have been prevented. "Nobody seriously wishes to reverse the results of the Norman Conquest or American independence or to express a passionate protest against these events ... . But plenty of people, who have suffered directly or vicariously from the results of the Bolshevik victory ... desire to register their protest against it, and this takes the form, when they read history, of letting their imagination run riot on all the more agreeable things that might have happened ... . People remember the time when all the options were still open, and find it difficult to adopt the attitude of the historian, for whom they have been closed by the fait accompli."

Without overtaxing the analogy to the Russian Revolution, this is a good description of the spirit with which we invoke 1993. It was a time when all the options were open, and the worst problems we had to deal with were a nagging recession and a $300 billion deficit. The United States was the sole superpower, the cold war had ended, embracing globalization plus education (the "Washington consensus") seemed like an obvious answer to coping with the economy. The circumstances the next president will face could not be more different from those that Clinton encountered in 1993, which makes one wish all the more that no mistakes had been made in that first year. For some, the appeal of Senator Hillary Clinton's candidacy is a sense that because she understands the mistakes of that year, even if she is responsible for some of them, she is unlikely to repeat them.

But the only thing we know about the future is that it's not the same as the past. To govern in our time, we'll have to start thinking about this era of American politics, and these circumstances, not the last. Maybe focusing on deficit reduction was the right strategy in 1993 but won't be in 2009; maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's not as important to do health care first as to do it right. Perhaps there will be new possibilities that weren't present in 1993: At that time, the Republican right was emerging as a fierce and disciplined opposition; if defeated in 2008, it is likely that it will be a party and movement in disarray. And the Democratic coalition behind the next president will not be dependent, as Clinton's was, on Southern conservatives.

There is one bit of virtual history that I will tolerate, however. What if Democrats had understood, in 1993, that winning the presidency is the beginning, not the end of the hard work--that a president is not all-powerful, and we can't just sing "Happy Days Are Here Again"? The fact that there's any serious discussion at all about how to govern and make change in 2009--even if that discussion is not yet prompting the right questions--is the best indication that the future won't repeat the mistakes of the past.

By Mark Schmitt