I work at a university in Northern California that’s home to many a great mind and one great what-if: Had Leland Stanford Jr. not died tragically in 1884, two months before his 16th birthday, do his parents build a university in his honor?
Let’s play on: Does Herbert Hoover, a member of Stanford’s pioneer class of 1895, end up on the same path to the White House – or, is it young Stanford? Assuming he matches his father as a California governor and senator, Leland Jr. projects as a Republican statewide officeholder as soon as the 1910s and maybe president in the 1920s. So much for Harding and Coolidge.
The “what-if” game makes for a welcome distraction when the presidential selection process is anything but warm and hospitable. There’s no defending a Republican Party that offers sanctuary to a bully and blowhard like Donald Trump. What does it say about a Democratic Party whose most scintillating candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, isn’t a dues-paying member (he calls himself a “Democratic socialist”).
There’s not enough space here to call out every player who led us to this sad political juncture. Still, here are three what-ifs that might have changed things mightily.
1. A California governor other than Jerry Brown. The winner instead in 2010: Gavin Newsom who, coming off a landslide re-election win in 2014, aims a rung higher. Suddenly, Hillary Clinton is facing a youthful rival (a 21-year age gap) with at least one accomplishment that impresses core progressives (while mayor of San Francisco back in 2004, Newsom started the ball rolling on same-sex marriage, whereas Clinton publicly didn’t come out for it until 2013).
But that’s assuming Clinton didn’t win the presidency the first time she ran because …
2. Hillary divorces Bill a decade ago. Leading separate lives, the former first couple part ways as the best of friends. Without her husband looking over her shoulder and his legacy overshadowing her aspirations, Hillary Clinton is free to achieve something that eludes her to this day – establishing herself as a more confident, independent political entity. The more-sure-of-herself, not-having-to-sanitize-her-husband’s-messes Clinton thus fends off a challenge from a promising young senator from Illinois.
But only if …
3. Jeb, not George, is Bush 43. The two brothers win their governor’s races in 1994 (in the real world, Jeb Bush wasn’t elected until 1998). Supposedly more politically ambitious than his older brother, Bush runs for president in 2000 as a very successful second-term Florida governor. So much for dangling chads and “selected, not elected.” Now, the big question: Does this Bush 43 invade Iraq? If not, then there’s no anti-war breeze at Barack Obama’s back in 2008, and Clinton never casts that Senate vote that still dogs her.
And where does that leave us for 2016?
There’s no Clinton on the ballot (though, legally, a 35-year-old Chelsea could do it). One doubts that George W. would be in the hunt.
And where does that leave voters?
On the Democratic side, that young Illinois senator denied his party’s nod in 2008 gives it another go. Obama promises to close Guantanamo and fight for universal health care for all – liberal bucket-list items that a cautious President Hillary Clinton maybe doesn’t pursue. Meanwhile, Newsom touts California’s economic revival and dogs Obama for being a later convert to same-sex marriage.
On the Republican side, it’s a different picture. Let’s presume Mitt Romney still runs and loses in both 2008 and 2012. However, it very well could be the same wide-open field as present, featuring the wide-mouthed Trump.
The list of political what-ifs is long (for example, if Kathleen Brown defeats Pete Wilson in 1994, she and not her brother Jerry might have been the Gov. Brown who made it to the White House).
Let’s just hope that both parties’ races improve over the next few months. Better for the nation to debate what might be rather than regret what might have been.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.