The point of a major party’s presidential nominating contest is about more than just choosing a candidate. Parties have factions, constituencies, and rivalries, vying for primacy, and a lengthy process offers them an opportunity to fight for control.
This can occasionally get ugly, but it’s a feature, not a bug. This is what parties are supposed to do; it’s what nominating contests are supposed to be all about.
And with that in mind, last night’s Democratic debate in Charleston, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, YouTube, and NBC, was a terrific encapsulation of the fight for the Democratic Party’s future. In effect, voters have been given a choice: do they want an evolution or a revolution?
More so than at any point in recent memory, Hillary Clinton presented herself last night as the inheritor of President Obama’s mantle. The New York Times had a good piece on this.
Seeking to stabilize her 2016 campaign in the state where her 2008 contest with Barack Obama took its nastiest turn, Mrs. Clinton linked herself to the president again and again. And again.She praised Mr. Obama for having “led our country out of the Great Recession.” She praised Mr. Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran: “I was very pleased to be part of what the president put into action.” She praised Mr. Obama’s handling of the Assad government in Syria – even though she fought with him over whether to arm and train Syrian rebels when she was his secretary of state.Over and over Sunday night, Mrs. Clinton turned to Mr. Obama as both sword and shield – sometimes even in the same breath.
At around 10 p.m. eastern, the Clinton campaign also sent a press release to reporters, criticizing Sanders over multiple instances in which he distanced himself from the Obama administration. “Hillary Clinton believes we must build on the progress achieved under President Obama and that, no matter what, we can’t go backwards,” the press release said. “Despite 70 consecutive months of private sector job growth and landmark legislation for universal health care and Wall Street reform, Senator Sanders has a troubling history of questioning President Obama and his achievements.”
Ten bullet points followed, listing examples of when Sanders and Obama were not on the same page.
The point wasn’t subtle: Clinton wants to build on Obama’s legacy, while Sanders supports a far-more progressive and ambitious platform that would replace some of what Obama has done.
If you’re a Democrat who believes the Obama era has been filled with important accomplishments, Clinton wants you to know she’ll fight to protect those policies from Republicans who would tear them down. If you’re a Democrat who believes Obama’s successes have been too moderate and incremental, Sanders offers a more revolutionary alternative.
In other words, Clinton wants the Democratic primary to be a referendum on the Obama presidency – and in her vision, pro-Obama Democrats should side with her.
That’s actually not a bad plan. As Politico’s Michael Grunwald explained this morning, “The politics of this warm embrace aren’t hard to understand. Obama’s approval rating has climbed to nearly 50 percent, and nearly 90 percent among Democrats; he’s especially popular among African-Americans, a big part of South Carolina’s primary electorate. With unemployment down by half on Obama’s watch, the deficit down three fourths, gas at $2, and the uninsured rate at historic lows, what’s harder to understand is why the Democratic candidates have taken this long to embrace him. They’re going to be accused of running for Obama’s third term no matter what they say; it can only help them to make a case for the first two.”
This is not to say that Clinton was alone in praising the president; Sanders did much of the same last night, especially on foreign policy.
The difference is, Clinton sees Obama as a wedge, separating Sanders from the party’s pro-Obama base. She’s the president’s longtime ally and a former member of his cabinet, the argument goes, while Sanders is the one who’s called for a “course correction” away from the Obama era.
It’s a real stretch, of course, to think that many Obama supporters are necessarily going to look askance at Sanders. We know there are plenty of Dems, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, who support both. Indeed, in some ways, the entire dynamic is a little ironic, given the rivalry that used to exist between Obama, Clinton, and their respective camps.
Regardless, last night made clear that the Clinton campaign has come up with an unexpected way of going on the offensive against its surprisingly competitive rival: Bernie Sanders just hasn’t been a reliable enough ally of Barack Obama.
If Clinton prevails and wins the nomination, Republicans are going to use all of this to tell voters the former Secretary of State represents “more of the same” and a “third Obama term.” But since the GOP is going to do that anyway, the general-election risk probably doesn’t much matter at this point.