Democrats of All Ages Agree on Nothing

How did Democratic Party icons like Barack Obama come to symbolize all the problems of yore?

Former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton walk through a garden, facing away from the camera.
Former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are not necessarily Democratic Party icons in 2020. (Christy Bowe / Corbis / Getty)

If time travelers from a distant era—say, the 1992 presidential campaign—had dropped in on this summer’s Democratic debates, they’d be entitled to wonder just whose political party they’d stumbled upon. The same could be said for a visitor from 2008 or 2012.

Medicare for All? Decriminalization of illegal border crossings? Free health care for undocumented immigrants? Free college and forgiveness of existing student-loan debt? Once-radical notions like these are now at the heart of the major party’s dialogue.

In 1992, Bill Clinton won the White House by promising to fight for the people who “work hard and play by the rules,” a pointed appeal to the political center and an implicit rejection of the George McGovern–style liberalism on which he’d cut his teeth as a campaign operative in Texas 20 years earlier. In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned on the notion of “change we can believe in.”

But today, Donald Trump has blithely broken every rule in the conventional political playbook. He has changed the tenor of national debate in ways that would have been unimaginable just months ago. So it’s perhaps logical that a sizable swath of the Democratic activist base—and of the 20-plus candidates in the primary field—now believes, as Elizabeth Warren puts it, that “the game is rigged.” In their universe, the old verity that Democrats win by claiming the center no longer applies.

Or, to bend a line from that firebrand liberal Barry Goldwater: Extremism in defense of democracy is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

“Hillary Clinton’s loss had an exponential effect,” says Robert Boorstin, who was a Clinton White House speechwriter and a pollster for Al Gore in 2000. “Because it changed the rules of the primary game—because people thought it was rigged against Bernie Sanders, and there is some evidence that it was at least heavily weighted in her favor. But it’s also changed what’s ideologically acceptable.” (In fact, it seems beyond doubt that Hillary Clinton’s dominance of party processes and elders gave her a leg up in 2016.)

Ben Rhodes, the former Obama speechwriter and deputy national security adviser, told me that the extent to which Trump has scrambled the country’s political culture has had a powerful impact on the Democrats. “One is the idea that politicians were mandated to play within an established set of lines, that were set by some perceived conventional wisdom, kind of goes out the window—Trump has tossed out a sense of ideological constraint,” Rhodes said. “And the other is the extent to which Trump has mobilized opposition. So Democrats are appalled by what he is doing to immigrants, and therefore may go beyond calling for the legalization of people who have been here a long time and move all the way to decriminalizing border crossings, because they see people in cages.” The party’s leftward drift, Rhodes said, “is both an emotional and intellectual response to Trump.”

That phenomenon was on full display during the first two debates, in which the most liberal candidates—such as Cory Booker, Bill de Blasio, Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser degree, Kamala Harris—portrayed both Clinton and Obama policies in a shockingly negative light. Obama, in this view, was not the president who finally delivered on the Democrats’ decades-long dream of expanding access to health care, but the man who left tens of millions of Americans without adequate insurance coverage. The next-wave Democrats characterized Obama not as the president who used bold and disputed executive action to protect undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, but as the cold-eyed calculator who presided over a record number of deportations.

And Bill Clinton? His 1994 crime bill was mocked at the time of its passage as too soft because it included money for programs like “midnight basketball” and community policing, and its unpopular ban on assault weapons helped lead to the Democrats’ catastrophic loss of the House of Representatives that year. (Clinton accepted Republican proposals to stiffen prison sentences as the price for passing the bill, because conservative House Democrats who were vital to the overall bill’s passage declined to support the assault-weapons ban.) Now the crime bill—and its Senate quarterback, Joe Biden—are scorned as the progenitors of mass incarceration.

Rahm Emanuel, the former Clinton adviser and Obama chief of staff, told me he likens the current environment to the period following 1968, when Lyndon B. Johnson was succeeded by Richard Nixon, in a right-wing victory that exploited and exacerbated deep internal divisions in the Democratic Party, just as Trump’s ascendance has. Emanuel acknowledged that Johnson’s war in Vietnam makes the analogy imperfect—“unless you think the surge in Afghanistan counts as that, and I don’t”—but added, “We have seen this movie before.”

“Here’s the thing,” Emanuel told me. “Today’s progressives are more angry at Clinton and Obama than they are at Bush 43. Whether it’s Clinton’s ‘small ideas’ and welfare reform, or Obama’s Affordable Care Act without a public option—those are the things where they feel like there were missed moments for big, bold ideas. Really? And that’s what drives the energy. Yes, they’re angry at Trump. Yes, they’re angry at Bush. But a lot of the energy is directed at the fact that they don’t love those two presidents—which I’d remind everybody are the only two Democrats to get reelected since Franklin Roosevelt.”

This analysis need not render value judgments on the relative merits of Clinton and Obama policies—which are legitimate subjects of disagreement and debate. But for anyone with a memory that extends beyond the advent of the internet, the distance that the 50-yard line has moved left can still seem stunning. It’s become a truism that Ronald Reagan could not win the nomination of today’s Republican Party, because his policies would be seen as far too liberal; the reverse may now be just as true for Obama and Clinton (leaving aside Clinton’s own obvious reevaluated reputation and vulnerabilities in the #MeToo-movement era).

Perhaps that’s only fitting. After all, Clintonism itself was born of a long-simmering fight for the soul of the party following Walter Mondale’s 1984 shellacking by Reagan. Together with such other moderate governors or former governors as Jerry Brown of California, Dick Lamm of Colorado, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and Richard Riley of South Carolina, and congressional figures like Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia and Chuck Robb of Virginia, Clinton envisioned a “New Democratic Party.” Their efforts were bitterly contested by the party’s liberal wing, but Clinton’s 1992 victory vindicated his approach.

“The point is that this contest between the progressive-liberal factions in the party and the centrist-moderate ones has a very long history,” Clinton’s White House press secretary Mike McCurry told me. “It has been there ever since the strong FDR, New Deal, World War II coalition began to dissolve in the late 1960s, race being the wedge issue that drove many southern Democrats to Nixon and the GOP. So we’ve been there, done that, and won when we accommodated the diversity in our party and expanded our political spectrum. That will be our challenge in 2020.”

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?