Presidential Debate

Clinton vs. Sanders over Obama's Performance Is All About the Democratic Party's Future

A seemingly petty fight over criticism of the president highlights a party struggle for a new identity.


Clinton also subtextually showed her support for keeping a personality-driven party by dressing up like a cult leader.

Toward the end of last night's Democratic debate we saw a lengthy back and forth as Hillary Clinton attacked Bernie Sanders for the crime of speaking ill of President Barack Obama. Part of it was strategic, obviously. Clinton has deliberately positioned herself as Obama's third term from the start of her "formal" campaign launch rally. Her message to Democratic voters has been, "If you like what Obama has done, you can expect the same from me." And as the primaries head toward South Carolina, she obviously has her eyes on where the minority vote may be going.

Here's a highlight of how harshly Clinton presents the idea that Sanders was expected to support the home team (despite, you know, Sanders serving the Senate as an independent, not a Democrat):

[T]oday Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test. And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment. …

And later:

And it is a — the kind of criticism that we've heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans. I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.

Sanders responded by calling the line of attack a "low blow" and said that he had the "right to disagree with the president, including a president who has done such an extraordinary job."

We will likely see more of this line of attack along with the critique that Sanders likely cannot put into place his radical economic and healthcare plans.

More fundamentally, this approach from Clinton is a reflection of how the Democratic Party is now struggling with an identity as Obama's presidency comes to an end. In a way, Obama truly has been the Democratic Party's Ronald Reagan. I don't mean the two men had a lot in common or that they were equally good (or bad) presidents.

Rather, the identity of the political parties revolved so heavily around the personalities and goals of their elected leader that it's no longer clear what the party actually is otherwise, beyond just a vague embrace of basic conservative or liberal politics, depending on which faction we're talking about. To criticize Obama is to criticize the Democratic Party and therefore Democratic voters. That was the not-subtle-at-all subtext of Clinton's attack.

The politically savvy Clinton is well aware she's stepping into a vacuum and her strategy is to ease nervous Democrats that everything will continue on as planned. But this growing Tea Party-ish (in style, definitely not in substance) fracture from the left was visible on the horizon from the 2012 midterms. While everybody had already taken note of the rise of Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, there were other "warning" signs that the Democratic Party was going to be struggling with its agenda post-Obama. I took note of this in a preview of the 2014 midterms:

Rifts have appeared on the Democratic side as well: progressives vs. centrists, anti-imperialists vs. interventionists, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) vs. Hillary Clinton.

It's still too soon to know whether Warren will give Clinton a challenge from her left in 2016, though the Massachusetts senator is on the record saying she does not want to run. But there was a preview of what such a fight might look like in September, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo fended off a spirited campaign from the progressive academic Zephyr Teachout. Cuomo represented the centrist, pro-business Democrats (complete with accusations of corruption), while Teachout wanted to ban fracking, raise the minimum wage, and roll back business-friendly tax cuts. Cuomo won, but Teachout managed to grab 34 percent of the vote despite being vastly outspent and never having previously run for office.

Obviously we know now that Warren won't be challenging Clinton. But she also hasn't endorsed Clinton, either, and it's obvious Sanders is the proxy candidate for Democratic voters who have the same lefter-than-the-establishment views. Teachout, meanwhile, wrote a piece for The Huffington Post heaping praise on Sanders.

That fight at the end of the debate is a distillation of this Democratic Party identity crisis. Clinton's performance is an embrace of the personality-driven core of the party. Sanders' performance and calls for "revolution" are an open and obvious call for a shift to a party driven by an operational ideology, not a person.

When Sanders won the popular vote in New Hampshire's primary, he mentioned in his victory speech the canard that Democrats win when voter turnout is high and lose when voter turnout is low. The stated reason he brought this up was to discuss the size of the turnout for the primary. Republicans had their highest turnout ever for a primary; Democrats had their second-highest (2008 had the highest).

But consider the invocation of turnout a warning to the Democratic establishment—ignore the positions Sanders is taking at their peril. If Clinton gets the nomination and she can't get Sanders' supporters to the polls for her, she could lose by virtue of voter disenfranchisement and apathy. Republicans are facing the same issue, worrying what Donald Trump's voters might do if he's not nominated (although, in an interesting reversal, Trump represents the same personality-driven presidency Clinton is trying to capitalize on, while the other candidates are campaigning on an ideological view of what the Republican Party should stand for).

Ultimately, while that fight appeared rather petty and not terribly useful (especially to non-Democrats), it represents what is likely to be a big fracture in the Democratic Party's identity moving forward, especially if they lose the presidency in 2016 and we get a complete GOP takeover of the executive and legislative branches, a complete reversal of what happened in 2008. Look what happened to the Republican Party after that.

All of this should matter to independents because that puts the identity of the Democratic Party up for grabs. Libertarian and independent attitudes made inroads within the Republican Party as it struggled under Obama to recover a place in political power. The same push could be useful on the left.

NEXT: Bernie Sanders Says He Understands There Are Unintended Consequences in Foreign Policy. Does He?

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  1. “the 2012 midterms”

    I think you meant the 2014 midterms.

    1. Dammit, if I had a dollar for every time I did that, I’d probably have at least three dollars.


      1. You must think like a Krugman, Scott.

        If I had a trillion dollar coin …

  2. I would say that Clinton’s fawning defense of Obama is largely rooted in her own self interest. I believe there is incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing regarding her email server. Making loving comments regarding Obama’s stewardship is a bald attempt to suck up in hopes of delaying or deflecting her culpability by staying in his good graces. Any warm afterglow it garners from her Democratic lackeys is just gravy. I fully expect one of those lackeys will be sacrificed in the name of “justice” as she squeaks by the jail house again.

    1. Yeah, if Human, Mills, or Sullivan have an ounce of sense between them, they’re lawyered the fuck up at this point.

      1. Should say “Huma”

        1. More than human.

    2. This! The fucking cunt is just trying to get out of being indicted.

  3. One of my alternative-history fantasies has always been to wonder what would have become of Nazi Germany if Hitler had moderated his demands just enough to avoid war. Would he have lasted til death, and what would have the succession been like? It’s fantasy because Hitler and his Nazi regime were built on aggression towards other people and other countries, and a Hitler who could have avoided war would never have gotten anywhere in politics; maybe the communists would have. But I still wonder what a succession battle would have been like. No brother like Fidel Castro, but I think otherwise it would have been somewhat the same, with the regime toning down its rhetoric and softening a bit as it aged and decided it was more important to stay in power than actually do things. If Hitler had died before the other aging remnants of the early days, would they have ramped up the old time hatred to outdo each other? Would young stallions have ramped it up even more? Or would more tolerant youngsters have snuck in by pretending to be angry young birds?

    I think this is more or less what is happening to both parties right now, and it’s fascinating except that one of them is going to be elected.

    1. and a Hitler who could have avoided war would never have gotten anywhere in politics

      Actually, a Hitler who could have realized that Czechoslovakia could be seized without bloodshed, but Poland was going too far and would result in a war he would likely lose, could have lived a long Castro-ish existence.

      1. probably could have even been fine with half of poland – taking on russia while embroiled in the western front was their undoing

    2. what would have become of Nazi Germany if Hitler had moderated his demands just enough to avoid war

      How could he have done that? He couldn’t deliver on his economic promises, so the only way to stay in power was to escalate his rhetoric and violence.

      And that’s the same risk with Sanders: Sanders is economically incompetent, and if he managed to enact his policies, the US economy would tank, and the only way for him to stay in power would be to become increasingly draconian.

      1. I know; you can’t change one characteristic of a system without having knock-on affects. For instance, Hitler made some good early military decisions, like the invasion route into France, but they were good because he didn’t know what he was doing and no one was ready for such shenanigans. His later military decisions were just as inept, but by then his opponents weren’t as weak and his mistakes dug him deeper into the mire.

        It took the same stupid Hitler to get Germany out of the Great Depression as it did to go to war and as it did to fuck up that war.

  4. Cuomo represented the centrist, pro-business Democrats (complete with accusations of corruption), while Teachout wanted to ban fracking, raise the minimum wage, and roll back business-friendly tax cuts.

    So Cuomo won and… banned fracking, raised the minimum wage, and I don’t know about the taxes but wouldn’t surprise me.

    1. You see, it’s entirely different. Teachout wanted to do it because she’s a true believer. Cuomo did it because he hates Upstate.

      1. There is that, and also there is just stealing Deblasio’s thunder. Apparently they hate each other. Then again, he obviously wants higher office so I’m not sure how running the state into the ground is supposed to help with that.

        1. What do you think of DeBlasio? I think you are in the area

          1. I live in NYC. I think he’s a commie with delusions of higher office. He’s not even an authoritarian in the Bloomberg mold – everything with Deblasio is about class envy. He is quite unpopular and I think he will get the boot next election.

            1. Ah a progressive with a lust for power…who would have though!

      2. hating upstate new york could be the only thing i agree with him on

    2. Yeah, but I think his argument is that he’s done it less than they would have….or something.

  5. In a way, Obama truly has been the Democratic Party’s Ronald Reagan.

    That seems a bit of a stretch, even in the sense you’re suggesting. Obama is a currently sitting president. Of course members of his party are going to defer to him. Reagan is a guy who’s been out of office for 27 years and has been dead for nearly 12. And fundamentally, Mr. Obama has done little to alter the nature of the American political landscape or even his own party. Ten years from now, how many people are going to reference “Obama Republicans” the way commentators still discuss “Reagan Democrats”? Even now, you have a candidate in Mr. Obama’s own party, to run to be his successor, pretty much rejecting his legacy (whatever that is).

    1. Except Ronald Reagan loved his country.

    2. Mr. Obama has done little to alter the nature of the American political landscape or even his own party.

      I disagree. He has altered the relationship between Congress and the executive, he has expanded executive powers, he has delivered an untold number of state, local, and Congressional seats to Republicans, he has brought his party to the brink of being a regional party, and he has driven many moderates out of his own party.

    3. I think, due to his effectiveness at uniting the base, hyms to Obama will be part of Democratic presidential primary politics in perpetuity (sometines ya gotta lean in to the alliteration).

      I mean, he united the base through their collective hatred of Republicans, and has made the country more divided… but what was he supposed to do? Be a leader or some shit? Clearly, you don’t understsnd Constitutional Scholar in Chief Barrak Obama’s more enlightened views on the role of the President

      1. Doubt it. My guess is that they’ll bring him up perfunctorily and more for the fact that he was the first black president than any particular loyalty. The truth is that they know he’s not going to have a huge base going forward. Between him and the Pelosi/Reid Congress, they handed control to their opposition within two years after attaining power as a result of a major crisis under the other party’s watch. That isn’t a win by any stretch of the imagination.

        1. Obamacare begs to differ. On the policy front they got pretty much everything they wanted except for more domestic union spending, sorry, ‘infrastructure.’

    4. he’s not their Reagan… he is their W. Clinton has to hitch her wagon to him, because she was to involved with the administration for distance to even look poorly faked. democrats for the next decade will likely shudder every time they are asked a question with his name in it.

  6. I’ve assumed from the beginning that Sanders’ popularity is highest among those “progressives” that have been disappointed that Obama hasn’t been further to the left. Bernie should embrace that, no?

    1. Apparently in the house in the 1990s. Bernie had some things to say about “free enterprise”. The leftists really do hate themselves and have contempt for everyone else.

      1. I think a lot of progressives want Bernie to be their Torquemada.

  7. I think Bernie Sanders is our next president and that worries me.

    1. I’d go in for $20 to the Reason Foundation that won’t be the case!

  8. These pictures perfectly capture the candidates: Hillary’s thinly-veiled contempt for anything delaying her coronation, and Sanders’ angry senility concentrating really hard on not drooling while people are looking.

    1. Alt-text:
      “Clinton also subtextually showed her support for keeping a personality-driven party by dressing up like a cult leader.”

      Not really, she’s just working her way in stages towards an orange jumpsuit.

  9. Here’s my question:

    Who the fuck is dressing Hillary? Gene Roddenberry’s ghost? That outfit looks like something left over from the second season of Star Trek.

    1. Last night I was speculating “Lunar New Year”. All it’s missing is embroidered dragons.

      1. Ah, plugging for the Chinese-American vote!

  10. Obama has been incredibly effective at uniting the Democratic base- mostly because he lost the 2010 midterms. Basically, that absolved him of the responsibility of getting anything done and has let him focus on saying the right words and putting forward the right legislation. He can tell the feminists what they want to hear, the greens what they want to hear, etc. And he then isn’t held responsible for doing anything about those words- any fuck up is a Republicans fault.

    Take the new Oil Tax he proposed. He knows it isn’t going to pass- but it is the right words to tell the environmentalist movement. Same with the feminist and a lot of the equal pay stuff- all sops to the base that are based on appearance, not effect.

    Based on a lapdog media and his very broad use of executive power, Obama could have probably pushed further left on a number of things, but he hasn’t. And I think for some stuff it’s because he doesn’t care beyond what pleases the base. Like, he could have done taxes and soak the rich shit even more than he did- the far left wants him to. But I think the guy knows that he has a life of wealth lined up for him and the next couple generations of Obamas, and he doesn’t want to utterly destroy the rich. He’ll need a beach house to stay in 2017 while he waits for cheques from speaking engagements to clear- then he could build the mansion.

    Basically, Obama is a cynical fuck who gives the various left wing constituencies JUST enough to be beloved by the Dems.

    1. youre right losing the legislature was a huge plus for him. maybe losing the presidency this year would be good for the dems too. whoever wins is gonna have a pretty big mess to clean up.

    2. youre right losing the legislature was a huge plus for him. maybe losing the presidency this year would be good for the dems too. whoever wins is gonna have a pretty big mess to clean up.

      1. im thinking of it like musical chairs. the aca in it’s current form is obviously unsustainable (like all our spending) so at some point somebody’s going to have to make some unpopular calls, unless we can technology our way out.

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    Eh, let’s not oversell it, bernie. He gets a B-. The guy before that gets an F, the guy before that a D, the guy before that an F, the guy before that an F, the guy before that a C, the guy before that an I, and the guy before that a big fucking fat F. So does the guy before that.

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