I started to write a short post to wish everyone a happy 2019 and take a shot at the few remaining Birthers but as I was writing and thinking about where we are at the end of the second decade of the 21st century it got me thinking. Just how did we get here?
How in 8 short years did we go from electing a wonderful, articulate, honest, intelligent young black man who was a wonderful father to electing an immoral, lying, clueless, racist scum bag? Almost no one saw this coming but in hindsight I think we should have seen the signs it could happen beginning with the way the election in 2008 played out.
I can remember the night of November 4, 2008 as if it were yesterday. I was out of town for some business meetings in northwest Ohio having dinner with a group of coworkers. I had heard some early returns as we were driving to dinner. Of course the traditional early red states went for McCain like Kentucky. Oh well, I tried but my vote was futile as I knew it would be. By 8:00 PM the big states started coming in for Obama and McCain’s path to victory started getting less and less likely.
When Ohio came in fairly early I knew it was over. The networks waited until the polls closed on the west coast at 11 PM ET to make it official. Barack Obama was going to be the 44th President.
I recall John McCain’s statesmanlike concession speech where Palin almost had to be physically restrained because she was determined to give her own spin on the defeat and immediately grab the mantle as the leader of the Republican party. I remember Obama’s wonderful acceptance speech and his calls to come together as a country. We should have known that the Republicans like Mitch McConnell had other ideas.
Those were euphoric times. Change was in the air. Gone were the incompetent puppet George W. Bush and the puppet-master Dick Cheney. The Democrats had solid majorities in both chambers in Congress. Yes, we had big problems. The economy was in terrible shape and was probably far worse than we knew. We still had troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite Obama’s solid victory we can now see that the seeds for 2016 were sown in 2008 and before. First was Obama’s choice of Joe Biden to be Vice President. By picking Biden Obama removed one of the Democratic champions in the Senate. He then caused another loss in the Senate when he picked Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State. While both seats were going to be replaced by appointees chosen by Democratic governors (not to mention that Obama’s seat was also being vacated) I think the choices weakened the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Obama’s choice of Biden and Hillary almost ensured that the vice president was not going to be the clear successor if Obama were to win a second term in 2012. Biden was going to be almost 74 years old by November 2016. By picking Clinton as Secretary of State he enhanced her resume as a future candidate too.
Well that was a good thing wasn’t it? Not necessarily. One clear lesson from the 2008 Democratic nomination battle was that Clinton was not a great candidate. It was her nomination in 2008 to lose and she lost to a relatively unknown junior Senator from Illinois. I supported Hillary Clinton early on in the 2008 cycle. However, after watching Barack Obama speak a few times I saw he had the “it” factor and Clinton did not. He connected to people in a way that Clinton did not.
Would Clinton still have been the nominee in 2016 had Obama made other choices? Possibly. However, had Obama chosen a young up and coming Democrat to be his running mate in either 2008 or 2012 they would have been the clear front runner in 2016.
I had hoped that Obama would choose a younger running mate in 2012. Someone who would be seen as the front runner in 2016. I think it was a mistake that he didn’t. It would have been a difficult decision to drop Biden though in part because he had done such a good job as VP. Obama had developed a close friendship with Biden and I think Obama leaned on him often in making difficult decisions.
It is possible that Biden intended to run in 2016 when Obama picked him again in 2012. However, fate stepped in when Biden’s eldest son, Beau Biden, who was the Attorney General in Delaware died from brain cancer in 2015. I think if Joe Biden had any thoughts of challenging Clinton for the nomination his son’s death probably pushed him to decide not to run.
Clinton again proved to be a weak candidate in 2016. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders ran in the Democratic primaries and caucuses and made it impossible for Clinton to wrap up the nomination until the end of the primary season in June. Although Sanders supported Clinton in the general election many of Sanders supporters thought somehow Sanders had been cheated and that the Democratic leadership had unfairly supported Clinton.
It is still hard to imagine she lost. Of course it was not entirely her fault. She entered the campaign with high approval numbers and high likeability ratings. However, the Republicans, who regained Congress in 2012 had had four years to hold nonstop hearings on the Benghazi incident in Libya. This lead to the discovery that then Secretary of State Clinton had used an external email server to conduct some government business.
Of course we now know the Russians were working overtime to support Trump. They set up a company in Florida with over 300 people working full time to attack Clinton and support Trump on social media using thousands or millions of fake accounts. In a coordinated attack Wikileaks released stolen internal DNC emails on the eve of the Democratic convention. Democratic Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign the same week.
Another factor working against Clinton was the outrage of a large fraction of white voters. Obama failed to get close to majority of white voters in either 2008 or 2012. In 2008 he got 43% and that dropped to 39% in 2012. Obama won with overwhelming support of minorities (blacks for the first time turned out at rates higher than whites to vote for Obama). He also won a majority of younger white voters. Whites were scared that the demographics of the country were changing and disturbed that a black could be elected.
Hillary’s demise was due to her failing to improve upon upon Obama’s fraction of white voters. She only got 38% of whites in 2016 while also not doing as well as Obama among blacks and especially Hispanic voters. Would a young Democratic or more progressive candidate without the Clinton baggage have done better with young white voters? I think the answer is yes.
This breakdown might provide a clue as to how Democrats can win in 2020 and beyond. More on that next time.
To be continued …