Hubris. Plain and simple.
Lost in the daily Clinton-Sanders horse race is the big picture. Ten years ago, liberals cowered in a corner. They didn’t even own that label, so scared they were of it. “Progressives,” they started called themselves. Their Democratic Party had lost back to back presidential elections to a guy they considered a buffoon. Congress, too, was in Republican hands. Republicans had led the country into two wars, passed massive tax cuts, and curtailed rights in the name of national security, while not nearly enough Democrats had the backbone to try and stop them. The only Democrat in the White House dating back a quarter century was a southern centrist. That seemed to be the only way someone with a (D) next to their name could compete nationally.
And then this guy showed up:
Back to back Electoral College wins! And pretty sizable ones, too! Being a liberal Democrat became cool. I’ll buy a t-shirt to show my progressive pride! All of a sudden pundits weren’t talking about how “Republicans have won five of the last seven national elections,” but how “Democrats have won five of the last six popular votes.” Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, though nominally an appeal to all Americans to not get dragged down into the divisive pessimism of American politics, was more a promise to progressives that a more liberal America was within their grasp.
President Obama’s two terms have been considered disasters for American conservatives, and for good reason. Liberals have won more days than they’ve lost. The Bush tax cuts expired for wealthy Americans. There was a move toward mandated health care coverage. Kagan and Sotomayor on the bench. Marriage equality. Marijuana legalization. Iran. Climate change agreement. Other nouns I could list with incomplete sentences. Liberals have had a good seven years.
So successful have these seven years been — and so thorough the two electoral victories (he won 365-173 and then 332-206) — that Democrats must think themselves invincible. Heading into Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, the two leading contenders for their nomination are Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Why is this evidence of their air of invincibility? Consider the candidates. I’ve regularly pointed out that Donald Trump holds the worst general election favorability numbers of any presidential contender since 1992. Democrats point to such a number, among other factors, to show just how truly divisive the man is, making him a terrible nominee and choice to lead our country. But Hillary Clinton is third on that same list over the same time period. More than half the country views her unfavorably. If Trump’s divisiveness is an argument against him, Democrats should see that as an argument against Clinton, as well.
The alternative is Bernie Sanders. The man who calls himself a democratic-socialist. The man who said, “Yes, we will raise your taxes.” A man who has said that a 90 percent tax rate isn’t too high. If you don’t think the Republicans would have a field day — that they wouldn’t blanket the internet and airwaves with out-of and in-context Sanders quotes, complete with images of the hammer and sickle, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Castro — you’re crazy. Moderates voted for Obama because they didn’t fall for the right’s distortion machine, not because they actually believed he was a socialist. With Sanders, it won’t take much of a distortion.
At the turn of the century, such finalists for the Democratic nomination would have been unthinkable. Northern liberals McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis had failed miserably in the electoral college, winning one, one, and ten states, respectively. Southern governors Johnson, Carter, and Clinton were the only Democratic presidents elected since Kennedy in 1960. Two decades ago, Jim Webb would have been a strong Democratic candidate — a Virginian moderate with military experience and working class appeal who could win over enough Republican voters to compete nationally. In 2016, however, he’s an afterthought. Not liberal enough.
Instead, liberal hubris has won the day. Of course this country will agree with us, they think. Of course the older generations should want to pay for our schooling, millennials believe. Of course people think traditional marriage is an archaic concept, says the left. Of course the middle and upper classes of this country will want to pay thousands of dollars more in taxes in order to fund infrastructure and cheaper health care. After all, they reason, almost everyone we know thinks this way.
I touched on such a myopic disposition when I discussed Pauline Kael and the reinforcement theory. (Movie critic Kael famously remembered that she only knew “one person who voted for Nixon” in his re-election where he won 49 states.) Our friends, family, preferred news outlets, and social media have a tendency to reinforce our own ideologies, partly because they helped frame them in the first place. Through that tinted lens, it seems that an overwhelming majority of people basically agree with us on the issues.
But that’s simply not the case. Even with President Obama’s relative electoral dominance, his popular vote totals haven’t been anything special. Indeed, since Ronald Reagan, we haven’t seen a president with particularly strong popular vote percentages:
The Democratic grip on the presidency isn’t nearly as firm as one might think. A slight breeze (or major hurricane) in the other direction and we don’t have the Obama years.
There’s also an argument to be made that Democratic electoral success doesn’t stem from strengthening Democratic or liberal appeal (Congress, after all, has returned to Republican hands) but instead from the political force that is Barack Obama. Love him or hate him, his success as a campaigner cannot be denied. Let us dispel with the fiction that he doesn’t know what he’s doing; he knows exactly what he’s doing. He wins elections. (Who can forget that moment in last year’s State of the Union when Republicans sarcastically cheered his admission that he no more campaigns left to run, and he needled, “I know, because I won both of them”?)
We don’t know that another Democrat can replicate his political brilliance. (I said political brilliance, Republicans. I’m not talking about policy. Sheesh, I felt your bristle from here.) Moreover, we should especially question the ability of both these specific candidates to replicate it. Clinton’s total collapse in 2008 and potential-collapse-in-progress now should call into question her campaign ability. Sanders has so many aesthetics working against him that the nuances of his policy ideas might never be given a fair shake. At least Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had welcoming barrier-breaking demographics working to their advantage; something tells me being the “oldest,” “first Jewish,” or “first democratic-socialist” president won’t exactly rally the media to his cause.
Hurting the Democrats’ chances further is the fact that this primary has devolved into quite the bitter affair. Will Democrats really be able to fully unite when this is over? Has Sanders dragooned enough young liberals to the point where they won’t trust a candidate in the pocket of Wall Street and will instead, if they vote at all, turn to a third party like the Greens? (Sanders’s refusal to join the Democratic Party could certainly convince them of such a conversion.) Alternatively, the unlikely case of a Sanders nomination would almost certainly induce a Michael Bloomberg run. How many Clintonians, genuinely skeptical of a democratic-socialist Sanders presidency, would be so upset that Sanders ruined her bid that they turn to the socially liberal but fiscally moderate New Yorker?
All of these are reasons why, one year out from the general election, I thought Rubio, Christie, and Kasich would be favorites against the Democratic nominee, despite recent Democratic success in the Electoral College. Due to the hubris of the Obama years, the party is much more vulnerable than it thinks, and it better be careful what it wishes for.