Liberal Amnesia

Have Obama’s supporters forgotten how much they once disliked Hillary Clinton?

Hillary Clinton
With no serious opposition looming in next year’s primaries, Hillary Clinton’s standing among Democratic voters is vastly stronger than it was at this point eight years ago.

Photo by Andrew Kelly/Reuters

As a presidential candidate, says one political veteran, Hillary Clinton does not offer the country a “fresh start.” “For all of her advantages, she is not a healing figure,” he continues. “The more she tries to moderate her image … the more she compounds her exposure as an opportunist. And after two decades of the Bush-Clinton saga, making herself the candidate of the future could be a challenge.”

Who said this? Marco Rubio? Scott Walker? A consultant for their fledgling 2016 campaigns? In fact, none of the above. They are the words of David Axelrod, the uber-strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and are drawn from his new memoir, Believer. The hefty, engaging book has been dissected mostly for Axelrod’s analysis of his former client and his presidency, but it’s actually far more remarkable from another vantage: It is a reminder of how far liberals who were in the pro-Obama camp in 2008 have traveled in their view of Hillary Clinton—and how much they’ve allowed themselves to forget along the way.

The reconciliation of Obama’s following with the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee has been the great underexamined story on the Democratic side of the ledger heading into an election year. One simply cannot overstate how much ill will there was between the two camps in 2007 and 2008—that historic, down-to-the-wire primary standoff was based not in policy contrasts (good luck recalling the differences in their health plans) but in a deeply personal clash about the meaning and methods of progressive politics. “Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we’re worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won’t do,” Obama said in his breakout speech in Des Moines in November 2007.  “This party … has always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people when we led, not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we summoned the entire nation to a common purpose—a higher purpose.”

Clinton fired back sarcastically three months later: “Now, I could stand up here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified. The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.’ ” The legions of young Obama foot soldiers in Iowa, South Carolina, and elsewhere were fired not just by airy notions of hope and change and making history but by the more negative motivation that the prospect of a Clinton nomination stirred in them.

And yet here we are, eight years later, and it is almost as if that great showdown never happened. Some of those young Obama loyalists have now assumed leading positions in the vast Clinton apparatus, as have some of his most senior campaign staff. With no serious opposition looming in next year’s primaries, Clinton’s standing among Democratic voters is vastly stronger than it was at this point eight years ago (right around the time Obama announced his challenge), notes Nate Cohn in the New York Times. As was the case then, the papers are full of eyebrow-raising stories about overlap between her political backers and donors to the Clinton Foundation. Yet whereas in 2007 those stories were seized on by many liberals as confirmation of their wariness of Clinton, this time around there is little sign of the stories—or those about her continuing to rake in $300,000 speaking fees—causing any real agita on the left.

It’s not hard to come up with explanations for liberals’ newfound acceptance. There is the fact that she and Obama reconciled and her (mostly) dutiful service as his secretary of state. There is the letdown that some (many?) Obama liberals have felt about their man and his high-flown aspirations for changing Washington, which has led to a reassessment of Clinton’s more Earth-bound approach. There is the simple reality that there is not a credible rival to assume Obama’s spot in the field as the more liberal, dynamic, and idealistic alternative—were Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run, she would quickly remind liberals of their misgivings about Clinton, but it really looks like she’s not running.

The result is a sort of collective amnesia among Obama supporters when it comes to their former estimation of Clinton—a reluctance to reckon fully with their aversion to her then and what has come of it since. This amnesia may seem harmless now, but one can’t help but wonder if it might come back to haunt Democrats in the general election if it is not confronted more fully before then. Democrats, including Obama’s diehard 2008 backers, may now seem willing to accept Clinton with a shrug or even a hug, and let bygones be bygones. But will that acceptance hold once they start seeing her out on the trail again—giving the stump speeches they found so dreadfully dull in contrast to those of their chosen guy in 2008, giving such hyper-cautious answers in debates, coming off as stumbling and disingenuous in her efforts to align herself with the mood of the moment? Better for Democrats to reckon with that prospect now than in the heat of the 2016 campaign, when they might suddenly find themselves feeling as unenthusiastic about her as they did about another Democrat running to succeed a two-term president with a stronger claim to the party’s emotional core.

That is why Axelrod’s new recounting of the 2008 showdown provides a service to Obama liberals—it cuts through the fog of forgetfulness, like some kind of Ghost of Primaries Past, to bring Obama-ites face to face with the Clinton they could not abide. Axelrod is no Clinton-hater—he did ads for her 2002 Senate campaign and expresses repeated gratitude in the book for her support of his and his wife’s efforts to spur research on epilepsy, which their daughter has battled for years.

But, unlike Obama 2008 veterans, he has not signed up with Clinton this time around, and is willing to recount the grand clash in clear-eyed terms. He recalls Clinton’s weakness for gun-for-hire consultants like the “bloodless and calculating” Mark Penn, who “saw his mission as quashing any liberal impulses” and “justified himself with fuzzy polling numbers and a smug self-assurance that made everything grating.” He distinguishes Obama’s offer of change in Washington from Hillary’s copy-cat rhetoric: “The ‘change’ Hillary was offering was not much change at all—certainly not a move away from the raw, divisive politics that had come to define Washington. Rather, she seemed to revel in those politics. … The change she was offering was not away from Washington’s habit of parsing words and passing on tough issues. (She habitually sought safe harbor.) The change she was offering was not away from a system dominated by PACs and corporate lobbyists. (She had taken their money and defended their work.)”

He casts in distinctly unflattering terms Clinton’s turn to a more aggressive tone once it became clear how much trouble she was in, calling her “downright gleeful” about attacking Obama and describing “the ardor with which she bared her teeth,” all of which “validated our critique that she was a reflection of scorched-earth Washington politics rather than an answer to it.” He singles out for opprobrium Clinton’s clumsy suggestion that Bobby Kennedy’s assassination late in the 1968 primaries was proof that anything could happen and that she should therefore stay in the race until the bitter end—an “inexcusable” and “thoughtless” comment that Axelrod says “enraged” him.

And he reminds readers of Bill Clinton’s provocative efforts to rally white voters around his wife in the South Carolina primary, which he says set off another senior Obama adviser, Alabama native Robert Gibbs: “Gibbs was convinced that Bill Clinton was trying to tap into the ugly impulses in southern politics that he had done so much to allay during his political career. ‘This guy had risen above the Old South,’ Robert said, ‘Now their backs are to the wall, and look at what they’re doing. Campaigning right out of the Lee Atwater handbook!’ ” Axelrod even gets in a small dig once his narrative turns to the general election, speculating that Hillary was unwilling to speak out against Sarah Palin after the GOP vice presidential nominee gave her a shoutout in her introductory speech because she was “perhaps flattered by Palin’s tribute.”

Axelrod makes sure to close on a conciliatory note, writing that Clinton was “as game, smart, and experienced an opponent as Barack could draw” and that “the warm partnership they built would become one of the inspiring subplots of my time in the administration.”

But make no mistake—Axelrod has not forgotten what the differences were that motivated him, and millions of other Democrats, to come to Obama’s side instead of Clinton’s not that long ago. And it would be better for their party’s sake if those voters grappled with those memories and realities sooner rather than later.