Elections

Adrift without Bill and Barack

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Dallas, Texas, March 2, 2020. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
Democrats find that political life without a charismatic superstar is a lot tougher.

The Democratic candidate won the popular vote in six of the past seven elections. But those seven elections generated just four Democratic victories by two men, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who are almost universally recognized as immensely talented politicians and campaigners. This Democratic presidential primary demonstrates what the party is like when it doesn’t have one of those larger-than-life charismatic figures to unite everyone: angry, bitter, and deeply divided on basic concepts of governance and the Constitution.

After Super Tuesday, the party appears to be begrudgingly uniting behind Joe Biden — the consensus choice of last resort. Bernie Sanders made it clear he wasn’t interested in even trying to win over the wing of the party that didn’t share his vision. He expected the party establishment to bend the knee and accept his socialist agenda as the party’s new direction.

You could argue that the story of the post–Cold War Democratic Party is largely the story of Clinton and Obama. The Democrats ran Bill Clinton twice, his running mate once, and his wife once. Between 1992 and 2020, the one time the nominee was neither Clinton, Obama, nor a figure connected to Clinton was when John Kerry won the nomination. That was also the one time the party’s nominee didn’t win the popular vote.

Without a charismatic unifier, the Democratic infighting gets nasty. Small but important segments of the party drift away. The early portion of the 2004 Democratic primary was one of the more angrily divided periods, with Howard Dean insisting he represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” against a bunch of spineless sellouts, and Dick Gephardt calling Dean “a fair-weather friend of the American worker.” The pair went at it hammer-and-tongs until the party decided to unite around the seemingly safe choice, Kerry, and the guy who came in second behind him, John Edwards. On paper, the 2004 Democrats should have been unified behind the safest choice. But Kerry flopped: His 59 million votes in 2004 were fewer than that of John McCain, who only won 22 states. In the exit polls, 11 percent of self-identified Democrats voted for Bush; just 6 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Kerry.

Political life is always easier when you’ve got a remarkably gifted presidential candidate or president leading your party. When your party is lucky enough to find walking a charisma machine, all of a sudden, the wind is at your back every day. All the factions and interest groups within the party start to squabble less, the moderates are usually happy, the hardliners grumble a little more quietly. Everybody more or less trusts the nominee or incumbent, and everybody more or less knows he’s doing the best he can in a difficult situation. It’s not only a Democratic phenomenon. Republicans are still hoping that someday they’ll find “another Ronald Reagan.” (Donald Trump “united” the party in an unusual way — he brought in a lot of populists who previously didn’t like Republicans and drove out a lot of suburbanites. The Republicans who wouldn’t unite under Trump are mostly independents now.)

In 2008, ABC’s Terry Moran described Clinton as “the man often called the most gifted politician of his generation.” Joe Klein wrote that Clinton “was too good a politician to be confined: He expanded the definition of a New Democrat to include anyone who might at some point vote for him.” Similarly, Vox wrote that Obama “boasts the chameleon-like ability to make himself seem like a natural fit for wherever he ends up.” As Obama’s second term ended, GQ declared, “In the coming decades, Obama’s star will rise higher than Clinton’s, and he’ll replace Bill in the public mind as the Greatest Democrat since FDR.”

Conservatives can gripe fairly that the media fell in love with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But the media fall in love with a lot of Democratic politicians — Ted Kennedy, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke. No other Democrats beloved by the media were able to achieve what Clinton and Obama achieved.

Perhaps most of the analysis of U.S. presidential races since 1992 have overthought a basic point: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were extremely charismatic, that charisma enabled them to unite an instinctively divided party, and without that kind of exceptionally magnetic figure, the Republican Party has a small advantage in presidential politics. Maybe what we’re seeing in this year’s demolition derby of a primary — and the 2016 fight between Clinton and Sanders — is “normal,” or the default. Maybe 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012 were the outliers, and the Democratic Party has been in a weaker, more fractured state than almost everyone thought all along.

One bit of supporting evidence is that the rest of the Democratic Party did so poorly at the ballot box during these presidencies. Without one of their charisma machines atop the ticket, Democrats often had terrible years over the past quarter-century. The scale of the 1994 Republican Revolution is still jaw-dropping — 54 House seats, eight Senate seats, two Senate Democrats switching parties, ten governorships, and the GOP won control of 15 state legislatures. Similarly, the Obama presidency was just brutal to down-ticket Democrats: From 2008 to 2016, Democrats lost eleven Senate seats, 62 House seats, twelve governorships, and 958 seats in state legislatures.

Perhaps in this ongoing primary, Democrats are waking up to a much more difficult political reality and recognizing that Clinton and Obama spoiled them. The president could adjudicate difficult disputes among party factions, hand out appointments, and hold White House events to keep everyone happy, and their natural charisma reassured the party that whatever their troubles of the moment, they were in good hands.

In Washington Monthly last year, Nancy LeTourneau started to wonder if Democrats had fallen into the habit of looking for savior figures, and that too many of the party’s rank-and-file had developed unrealistic notions of how government worked and what political leaders could achieve:

Perhaps it was precisely because our 44th president was so intelligent and charismatic that a lot of people thought that he could transform American politics into something it’s never been, and that governing — especially given Republican obstructionism — would ever be anything other than crawling over broken glass for every incremental victory . . . As we head into the 2020 election, a lot of liberals remain intent on looking for someone to save us.

The Democratic Party of 2020 was always going to be difficult to unite. It’s a hodgepodge of the “dirtbag Left,” wary African Americans, billionaires with progressive dreams, Latinos who want the full American dream, white-collar women, online activists obsessed with identity politics, and at the moment, a slew of Americans unhappy with Donald Trump but not quite willing to accept just any alternative. And it’s perhaps impossible to unite this contradictory and frequently-suspicious jumble unless you’ve got charisma on the scale of Clinton or Obama.

The momentum has suddenly shifted to Biden — Obama’s running mate and a poor man’s Bill Clinton. This post-Obama, post-Clinton Democratic Party is going to go through some serious growing pains.

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