Marcia Hale, a longtime Democratic operative who headed relations with state and local governments for the Clinton White House, told me she can hardly believe how far the dynamics have shifted since 1992, when Clinton campaigned on an overhaul of the welfare system, a modest tax cut for the middle class, and a pledge to extend health-insurance coverage. “What I can’t figure out is why they’re all trying to out-Bernie Bernie” on health care, she told me. “That may be where some people in Iowa are, but it’s not where the country is. It’s one thing to say you want to fix health care, and it’s another thing to say you want Medicare for All. These are a strong group of individuals with really different backgrounds, so it’s disheartening to see it go this way, so many falling in line. Let Bernie and Elizabeth Warren fight it out for that. I don’t know if the damage is permanent, but once you say these things, you’ve got to live with it.”
It’s a historiographic axiom that revolutions happen in times of rising expectations, and the Democrats’ leftward drift is no exception. “Obama accomplished a lot of progressive goals, but the nature of the progressive movement is that if Obama advanced the ball this far down the field, we want to advance it further,” Rhodes told me. “You wouldn’t be having a Medicare for All conversation if we didn’t have the Affordable Care Act. Legalization of gay marriage opened up the conversation about trans rights. I do think the strength of Bernie’s 2016 campaign mainstreamed ideas that previously had been on the far left.”
Adam Frankel, a longtime Obama campaign and White House speechwriter, notes another reality: Focus groups of the voters who went from Obama to Trump have found that such voters wanted change—change above all.
“It’s all of these things that people are tired of—modulation, moderation,” Frankel told me. “Where Obama sought to weigh his firmly held principles against the reality of what seemed achievable, now we’re in an environment that regards that as quaint or even misguided. I think there’s a degree to which people’s freedom to say some of this stuff now is the result of his walking the line, and getting elected as the first black president. It’s not like you could have gotten away with saying a bunch of this stuff then.”
Still, Frankel said, the shift can be unsettling. “It totally does seem like an entirely different party,” he told me, recalling how the longtime John F. Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen used to tell him that he found it amusing on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign that he was considered an elder. “Veterans of the Kerry and Obama campaigns are now sort of seen as these more moderate, old-guardy kind of Democrats,” Frankel said, “and I’m thinking, We’re still in our 30s here! What are you talking about?”