At Thursday night’s Democratic primary debate in Los Angeles, you can expect to hear multiple candidates who consider themselves more moderate than Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren dance around the issue of “electability.” These candidates will imply that nominating Sanders and Warren, who are running second and third in the polls but who have both been plausibly more effective campaigners than front-runner Joe Biden, would be a self-inflicted disaster for the Democratic Party. The Massachusetts and Vermont progressives, Biden and Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar will suggest, are too far outside the American mainstream to win a general election—too liberal, too extreme, too alienating to the swing voters in the center of the country.
In this context, it’s perhaps worth remembering what rivals, pundits, and even voters themselves said about Barack Obama, the only Democrat who has won a presidential election this millennium, in late 2007 and early 2008 when he was running for the nomination against Hillary Clinton.
Electability was a concern for Obama from the start. On Oct. 3, 2007, Politico cited a poll in which “a clear majority of those surveyed, 57 percent, said Clinton is the Democratic candidate with the best chance on Nov. 4, 2008.” By contrast, the site noted, “20 percent think [John] Edwards is most electable and 16 percent think Obama is.” Clinton campaign surrogates went hard on the issue. A Dec. 7, 2007, Washington Post piece described a conference call in which Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Clinton supporter, told the press that she would “be best able ‘to connect in rural America’ and that he had seen people with pickup trucks in his state covering up their old George W. Bush bumper stickers with Hillary Clinton ones.” Said Democratic Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh on the same call: “I think Hillary Clinton has the best chance of being electable in swing parts of the country.” In January 2008, a well-connected Obama fundraiser named Robert Farmer announced dramatically in a Washington Post op-ed that he would no longer support the young Illinois senator because he had concluded that Clinton was “more electable” and “it would be tragic if we selected a nominee who falls short in the general election.” (In particular, he argued that Obama would be crippled by negative campaigning in a way that Clinton could not be, because she had “already been vetted beyond imagination.” Swing and a miss on that one, Robert Farmer!) On March 5, 2008, Politico wrote about a Clinton speech in which she “stressed that she’d won states like Ohio, crucial to the general election,” while “her aides began an argument that they will need to win with the Democratic Party’s elite: that Obama can’t be trusted to win.”
Why couldn’t Obama win those Rust Belt and rural states? For one, he was too far left. On Dec. 11, 2007, Politico published a piece called “Liberal Views Could Haunt Obama” that cited a questionnaire his campaign had filled out when he was running for state Senate that asserted that he opposed the death penalty, endorsed the concept of single-payer health care, and would support restrictions on the possession of handguns. The piece also cited positions he’d taken on contemporary campaign issues that could be “politically problematic” and raise “electability questions,” such as his support for issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, raising taxes on high earners, and granting early release to some individuals imprisoned on drug charges. By contrast, Politico wrote, Clinton’s platform demonstrated “realism” and “caution.” Said the publication: “Republicans think [Obama’s] high-minded approach to issues could make him a sitting duck as he tries to attract the vast middle that determines American elections.” In early 2008, National Journal rated Obama as the most liberal senator on votes taken in the previous year, a fact that was subsequently cited in coverage of him, which suggested that Republicans were eager to see him become the Democrats’ nominee.
It wasn’t just Obama’s progressivism on policy, though, that was a problem. There was also the matter of his purportedly broader disdain for the United States and its values. He’d attended a church led by an outspoken black pastor named Jeremiah Wright; the New York Times wrote in March 2008 that presumptive Republican nominee John McCain could “challenge Mr. Obama’s patriotism” by bringing up critical statements Wright had made about U.S. foreign policy and the oppression of black Americans, calling it a potentially “potent line of attack.” Politico was the first to report that Obama had once held a state Senate campaign event in the home of former Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers, noting that this connection was “virtually certain to be a subject Republican operatives will warm to if Obama is the Democratic nominee.” Obama was criticized for his decision not to wear an American flag pin after 9/11, while his wife, Michelle, was criticized for saying during the campaign that she was proud of the U.S. “for the first time in my adult life.” In April 2008, the candidate exacerbated the situation by commenting that some rural voters “cling” to “guns and religion” as a response to alienating economic changes—comments, Politico said, that “vindicate centrist Democrats who have been arguing for a decade that their party has allowed itself to look culturally out of touch with the American mainstream” and “play directly into an already-established narrative about his candidacy” about Obama’s “limited appeal beyond upscale Democrats.”
Some pundits adorned Obama with the largest and most putrid albatross corpse that can be hung around the neck of a Democratic candidate: comparison to George McGovern, the liberal antiwar candidate who lost a 1972 landslide to Richard Nixon. In April 2008, a CNN correspondent named William Schneider asserted Obama was vulnerable to being portrayed as a “left-wing ideologue” because he was leading a “movement”-style campaign in the same manner as “Barry Goldwater in 1964” and “George McGovern in 1972.” Those campaigns, Schneider said, “failed because they were divisive.” (Goldwater, a Republican, lost by a wide margin to Lyndon Johnson.) CNN’s David Gergen predicted that “John McCain is going to go after Barack Obama as the George McGovern of 1972.” And after the Pennsylvania primary, the New Republic’s John Judis wrote an entire piece about Obama called “The Next McGovern?” in which he warned that the candidate was depending too much on “very liberal” voters, “college students,” and “minorities,” writing that Obama was demonstrating concerning signs that he was “going to have trouble winning that large swath of states from Pennsylvania through Missouri in which a Democrat must do well to gain the presidency.”
In the end, Obama didn’t win Missouri, but he did win Pennsylvania—and Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and the election as a whole. He spun the question of his electability into one that raised the inspiring possibilities that could be achieved through voters’ collective power. “If you believe I can be the next president of the United States, it can happen,” the Washington Post quoted him as telling a crowd in Webster City, Iowa, on Dec. 27, 2007. “People start running negative ads or negative mail, and they start planting seeds of doubt. They say ‘Oh, you know, Obama is young’ or ‘You know, is he electable enough?’ … The question is, do you believe in change? The question is do you believe deep in your gut that we can do better than we’re doing? You know we can, and you have to trust that sense that we can do better because every generation is tested in this way and this is our moment to try to break out of the conventional wisdom and get something done.”
Obama used the criticisms of his approach as rhetorical foils. Ten days after announcing that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee, he framed a speech calling for the extension of health coverage to every American as a response to pundits and politicians who said such an effort would be too “risky” or “expensive” or who wanted to “tinker at the margins” of the problem. “Never forget that we have it within our power to shape history in this country,” he said, concluding that “the time has come for universal health care in America.” After winning the Iowa caucus in 2008, he explained his already-derided message of “hope” was not about “blind optimism” or “shirking from a fight,” but about cultivating “that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.”
Today, his message is different. In November, the Washington Post quoted Obama as having told a meeting of donors in Washington that “this is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement.” Said Obama: “The average American doesn’t think that we have to completely tear down the system and remake it. And I think it’s important for us not to lose sight of that. … My point is that even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality and the fact that voters, including Democratic voters and certainly persuadable independents or even moderate Republicans, are not driven by the same views that are reflected on certain, you know, left-leaning Twitter feeds or the activist wing of our party.” These days, it’s his advisers who are giving anonymous quotes to Politico about the danger of nominating someone who’s out of the mainstream.
So perhaps this time it will be someone responding to Obama himself who delivers the message with which the once-aspiring candidate responded to critics who told his supporters to “pause for a reality check” or said that his ambitious candidacy was creating “false hope.” Said that version of Obama: “In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.” Can we still?