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Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Rodham postulates a theory: If Hillary Rodham had never married Bill Clinton, the past 30 years of American politics would be fundamentally changed — sometimes subtly, and sometimes in huge, world-bending ways.
Rodham isn’t a political treatise or textbook that’s aiming for documentary levels of realism in the political events it tweaks. It’s a work of fiction that uses the real-life Hillary Clinton to examine ideas about power, gender, and the role of charisma in politics, and most of the changes to real history that appear in the book were chosen specifically to fit those themes. Demanding that they fit a narrow idea of documentary realism would be pedantic at best.
But listen, this is Vox and we’re pedantic nerds here. So at the Vox Book Club this week, we’ve decided to check Rodham’s alternate history against the facts of what happened in the real timeline — and, in the process, show a little more clearly exactly what ideas about politics and power Sittenfeld is interested in as she bends reality to her will.
To help make this fact-check as stringently accurate as possible, I (Vox book critic Constance Grady) have enlisted help from Matthew Yglesias, Vox co-founder and senior correspondent. Together, we hammered out what a Jerry Brown presidency would mean for America, what the Supreme Court might look like in Rodham, and whether a Hillary Rodham who never served in the executive branch would be quite so dominant a frontrunner for president as our own Hillary Clinton was.
Matt Yglesias! Thank you for visiting the Vox Book Club this week to share your expertise. I want to start at Rodham’s first major point of divergence from our own timeline: the 1992 Democratic primaries.
Without Hillary by his side, Bill Clinton crashes and burns at his infamous 60 Minutes interview and drops out of the race four days later. Bush wins the general election, and the list of American presidents and vice presidents over the next two decades looks like this:
1992: George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle
1996: Jerry Brown and Bob Kerrey
2000: John McCain and Sam Brownback
2004: John McCain and Sam Brownback
2008: Barack Obama and Joe Biden
2012: Barack Obama and Joe Biden
Of note: Under the McCain presidency, it appears that neither 9/11 nor the Iraq War ever happened, which in turn means that when Hillary eventually runs for president, she never has to defend voting in favor of invading Iraq.
How does all this strike you? Does it look broad-strokes accurate? Was Bill Clinton really the only Democratic nominee who stood a chance against Bush in 1992? Would John McCain definitely have stopped 9/11? Who even is Jerry Brown?
It’s a little hard to know what to make of this alt-1992 election in part because Sittenfeld doesn’t tell us who the Democratic nominee was. But there were basically five candidates in that race — Clinton, Jerry Brown, Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin, and Paul Tsongas. Since a Brown-Kerrey ticket wins in 1996, it seems likely that neither of them was the loser of the 1992 general election. I’m inclined to guess that if Clinton had dropped out early, then Harkin, an affable Midwestern labor liberal, would’ve run and would’ve beaten Bush.
But the story I’m going to tell for myself about this is that Clinton’s dropout proves to be a boon to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, whose neoliberal approach was a good match for Clinton policy-wise but who didn’t have anything close to Clinton-level charisma. Democrats are now saddled with a bit of a cold fish New Englander as a nominee who also doesn’t have Clinton’s connections to the Black community. Consequently, he loses Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia (all of which Clinton carried — politics was very different back then) while a stronger Ross Perot campaign tips Ohio, Montana, and Nevada to Bush. It sort of makes sense if you squint. Maybe.
The fundamental problem here, though, is that the 1992 race just wasn’t that close. The most plausible alternate history scenario in which Bush gets reelected is one in which the Fed doesn’t deliberately slow-walk economic growth as part of an “opportunistic disinflation” scheme. But the normal rules of alternate history are that you only get to change one thing — in this case, Hillary standing by her man — and everything else has to follow from that. And I have a hard time seeing why Bill Clinton dropping out would change the macroeconomic fundamentals.
What’s really interesting here in a big-picture sense is Sittenfeld’s implicit theory of how presidential nominations work.
Brown and John McCain were both, like Howard Dean, charismatic outsiders who exploited new technological paradigms to raise money outside traditional party donor networks and made a lot of noise during their primary campaigns before losing to a consensus party favorite. An important political science book, The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform, argued that the failure of these insurgencies was no coincidence and that party networks effectively controlled nominations. After Donald Trump’s victory, that theory doesn’t look so good. But one view is that it was true of the nominations of the 1990s and 2000s, but party control has been eroded by changes in the media landscape.
Sittenfeld’s alternate history is implicitly arguing that, no, it was never really true and if you allow events to unfold slightly differently, then Brown and McCain can succeed. I don’t think I agree with Sittenfeld (if anything, making H.W. Bush a more successful president should have made the Bush legacy stronger, not weaker) but it’s not a crazy hypothesis either.
What’s tougher for me is to see how Barack Obama becomes president in this world.
Obama’s accession to the presidency had a lot to do with his natural talents. But it also had more than a little to do with his having been on the right side of the Iraq debate. In real life, McCain was super hawkish and I think it’s plausible he’d have tried to start a war there even without 9/11. But the story here seems to be that the McCain administration somehow averted 9/11 and didn’t invade Iraq. In that case, what’s Obama’s issue that he rides to overcome doubts about his experience and electability?
Another interesting thing to think about is the alt-SCOTUS. Clinton filled two Supreme Court vacancies in his first term with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Harry Blackmun’s retirement that created the Breyer vacancy was pretty clearly strategically timed, and in the alternate timeline he would have simply waited until 1997 to step down.
But even though Byron White, who stepped down early in Clinton’s presidency, was a Democratic appointee, he fell out of step with cultural liberalism pretty quickly and dissented from famous progressive opinions like Miranda and Roe v. Wade. He didn’t pass away until 2002 so he clearly could have stayed on the bench and waited for the Brown administration if he’d wanted to. But it’s not clear to me from the historical record that he really was acting strategically with that timing — he was pretty old by 1993 and maybe just didn’t want to do the job anymore. In that case, you’d have had a more conservative Supreme Court throughout this period, and especially so after Sandra Day O’Connor stepped down in 2005.
So interesting! My impulse as a book critic is to say that part of the fantasy of this alternate George-W.-less, Obama-full history is to restore some innocence to America. We never have to experience the generational horror of 9/11 and the ensuing war, but we do get to have the redemptive moment of electing our first Black president. It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too story.
But back to the fun part: demanding real-world accuracy from this fictional book.
While Bill Clinton is dropping out of the 1992 election in Rodham, Hillary Rodham is just starting to take her first steps into national politics. After leaving Bill in the ’70s, she took a job as a law professor at Northwestern. She did some local political work, most notably advocating for voting rights in Black communities during the 1983 Chicago mayoral election, which, in Hillary’s timeline as in ours, saw Harold Washington becoming the city’s first Black mayor. And in 1991, after Anita Hill’s testimony pushes a wave of women to campaign for national office, a political strategist tells Hillary she should run for Senate and face off in the Illinois primary against Alan Dixon, who voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Hillary’s tempted by the idea, but she doesn’t officially sign on until she sees Bill flame out of the presidential race.
In the real world, Carol Moseley Braun successfully primaried Alan Dixon in that race and went on to become the first Black woman in the US Senate. In Rodham, Hillary briefly decides against entering the campaign after Braun announces, because she believes Braun to be more charismatic than she is, and she doesn’t think a comparison between the two of them will do her any favors. “Your serious-professor vibe,” her strategist friend tells her, might “come off as pretentious or elitist” next to Braun.
But after she attends one of Braun’s campaign events, Hillary reconsiders. Braun’s late to her own event; she seems messy and disorganized. A wealthy Chicago socialite tells Hillary that Braun doesn’t have what it takes to win and she would prefer to invest in Hillary as a candidate over Braun. Hillary takes her offer, defeats both Braun and Dixon, and goes on to win the general election, too.
How does this election strike you as a plausible entree into national politics from a respected law professor? Are we basically turning Hillary into Elizabeth Warren here?
As far as ways to make this plot mechanic work, Sittenfeld has hit on a pretty good one. It’s a little bit far-fetched, but that 1992 Illinois Senate primary was genuinely weird. Not only did Moseley Braun knock off an incumbent Democrat but a third candidate — rich-guy lawyer Albert Hofeld — got 27 percent. You could take Hofeld as a proof of concept that there was an appetite for a non-Moseley Braun challenger to Dixon, and posit that Clinton would’ve been more compelling.
But you’re right that this does seem to sort of be a merger of Clinton’s life story with Warren’s, which is telling in its own way.
In ideological terms, these are actually two very different Democrats and Warren was very critical of Clinton in her book The Two-Income Trap. But politics is about more than just public policy and ideology, and I know a lot of die-hard Hillary fans who fell hard for Warren in 2020. On a personality level they both fit an archetype of hyper-competent, detail-oriented professional women that I think resonates very strongly with a lot of the people in my personal social circle, even if it’s not as appealing nationally.
Of course the other thing that makes this plot development great is that by having Clinton be an Illinois senator in the 1990s rather than the first lady of Arkansas in the 1980s, it means she would naturally develop a policy record and political profile that’s more in keeping with mainstream contemporary liberalism than the actual one she and her husband put together as red-state Democrats during the Reagan era.
Yes, I think one of the big fantasies this book indulges in is that Hillary gets to be freed from her sins. She never supports her husband’s crime bill; she never votes for the Iraq War. And since she never enters Obama’s Cabinet to become secretary of state, nothing happens with Benghazi either.
The downside of that is we end up with a bit of a vacuum in terms of Hillary’s actual politics that is never quite filled. We get some descriptions of her process that seem to match real Hillary pretty closely — obsessive reading of policy papers, meetings with experts, a wonkish love of details — but we don’t learn much about the actual results. We don’t know much about what her legislative aims are or what her major accomplishments are as a senator. And since she was never a first lady or a secretary of state, she has no significant experience in the executive branch. Her public persona actually veers away from Warren to become a bit Amy Klobuchar-esque, with profiles referring to her as a “flat-voweled Midwesterner” and making much of her straightforward uncoolness.
Nevertheless, alt-Hillary comes to occupy essentially the same space that real Hillary held leading up to the 2016 election: It seems pretty clear to everyone, including Hillary herself, that she is the woman most likely to be America’s first woman president. And she faces a virulent misogynistic backlash as a result of that status. When Bill decides to come back into politics to throw his hat into the ring for the 2016 Democratic nomination after decades as an infamously hedonistic tech billionaire (whatever, it’s fun), the young tech bros at his rallies start chanting, “Shut her up! Shut her up!” every time Hillary’s name is mentioned.
But Sittenfeld’s version of the 2016 election ends differently than ours did. In a deliberately comic string of events, Donald Trump ends up deciding not to run and instead throws his support behind Hillary and against Bill, whom he hates. (In Trump tweets, Hillary becomes “Hardball Hillary,” and Bill is “Cheatin’ Bill.”) Bernie Sanders is never mentioned. And Hillary ends up clinching the nomination against Bill by making a speech at a debate about how much she resents people focusing on her likability. “If you want someone very attractive, you can watch a Hollywood movie,” she says. Instead, she thinks people should vote for her “because I’ll do a good job.”
That argument encapsulates what a lot of Hillary’s supporters said about her during the 2016 election: that Hillary’s particular set of skills is better suited for governing than for campaigning. And the thought of hearing Hillary give voice to that argument is a little cathartic.
But when I read that speech in Rodham, I didn’t feel catharsis. Instead, my first thought was, “No way do Americans vote for a woman who scolds them for wanting her to be likable. We just don’t respect women enough to do that.”
What do you think? Do you see a surprise moment of honesty from Hillary Rodham clinching the presidency for her? And would she have become a de facto frontrunner without any time at all in the executive branch?
This seems like something you see over and over again in fictionalized versions of Democratic Party presidencies, whether it’s Laine Hanson in The Contender telling Congress that she believes in gun confiscation or Jed Bartlett smacking down evangelical Protestants on The West Wing.
Secular, cosmopolitan, educated liberals see that most Democratic Party politicians seem to resemble them demographically but don’t actually voice some of the views that are widespread in that demographic. They process that as a form of unattractive hypocrisy, and then they posit that a hypothetical “more honest” Democrat who would forcefully embrace the authentic spirit of cultural liberalism would be more popular and win. Realistically, though, that seems unlikely. These scenes are a kind of fan service for a certain class of Democrats. The Clintons, in particular, seem to inspire some people to try to clean up their narratives — with Bartlett’s impeachment happening over something more high-minded than Bill’s, or Sittenfeld’s book rewriting history to eliminate people’s issue-oriented complaints about Hillary and leaving only pure misogyny behind.
The question of whether she’d have been a contender at all in this scenario is an interesting one. By virtue of her service as first lady, Clinton sort of had the mantle of “potential first woman president” to herself presumptively throughout 21st-century Democratic Party politics.
Without that boost, would someone like Dianne Feinstein have been a formidable contender in 2008? Would former Washington state governor Christine Gregoire have gotten more buzz? Clinton herself was given to saying during the 2016 campaign “I’m not a natural politician,” making some unfavorable comparisons in that regard to her husband and to Obama. In some ways that’s giving herself short shrift — as Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote at the time, she’s a very skilled politician in the sense of coalition-building. But she’s not great at showpiece speeches. It’s easy to imagine her being a very successful workhorse senator or even a majority leader based on her very real skills. But absent the context of her White House service in the 1990s, would she be seen as having the kind of star power that makes a person a presidential prospect?
Happenstance really matters here. We know from the 1988 and 2008 campaigns that Joe Biden is not such a dynamo of charisma that nobody can beat him in a primary. But eight years as vice president put him in a position to win rather easily. I don’t mean it as a big slam on Hillary to say I’m skeptical she’d have been president without prior service as first lady. But we really did have plenty of other qualified women in statewide office who just didn’t get any consideration in the real world. On a more level playing field, it’s easy for me to imagine one of them prevailing instead.
I agree with you on that, and that’s what makes me think that one of the great strengths of Rodham is also its biggest limitation.
This book is enchanted that by the idea of tweaking one thing in the recent past, you can fundamentally alter the present. You can save brilliant, ambitious Hillary Rodham from her marriage to Bill Clinton; you can unleash all that frustrated potential on the world and then sit back and watch what happens next. And that idea is, especially to those who appreciate Hillary Clinton’s fierce and undeniable ambition as an attractive quality in and of itself, a heady one. But because Rodham is so narrowly focused on Hillary herself, it is never able to examine all of the other possibilities for the world it’s created.
I was shocked, in 2019, to realize how moving it was for me to see so many women on the floor at the first debate of the Democratic primaries. And it’s entirely possible that there would never have been so many of them there if Clinton hadn’t cracked the glass ceiling in the first place. But I also have to wonder if her position as the de facto “if there’s going to be a woman president, it’ll be her” figure of the past 20 or so years means that other women politicians who are just as smart and just as capable never found national attention, and if they are only now, after Hillary Clinton has more or less ceded the game, finding themselves emboldened to enter the field.
Watching Hillary face off against Bill offers Rodham some of its most compelling scenes. But what would it have looked like if she were facing off against another woman candidate instead?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, book clubbers. You can let us know what you think about Rodham and all the ideas embedded in its alternate history in the comments below. Plus, meet us back here next week, on Thursday, July 30, to see me talk with Curtis Sittenfeld live on Zoom. You can RSVP here, and make sure to sign up for the Vox Book Club newsletter to be sure you don’t miss a thing.