The pundits would like to let you know the Democrats have a problem. It’s not that their decade-long betrayal of labor and the working class appears to be coming back to bite them, nor that their virtually anointed frontrunner is one of the most disliked presidential candidates in modern history.
It’s the fact that, as we are told again and again and again, the Democrats are seemingly irreparably “divided” by a nomination contest that seemingly will not end, and by a surprisingly strong challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders, who has created a rift in the party with his “confrontational rhetoric.” Sanders recently met with President Obama at the White House to discuss the issue of “party unity” and backing Clinton against Trump, but he has also pledged to continue his campaign into the convention, and the “Bernie or bust” phenomenon among some Sanders supporters means the campaign will likely remain acrimonious into the near future.
A widely shared piece from Politico that looked into the “bitter last days” of his campaign talked about “every time Sanders got into a knife fight” with the Clinton campaign. Over at the Guardian, Matt Laslo wonders when Sanders will start “redirecting the anger in his base” to help Hillary Clinton win.
However will the Democrats stop a Trump presidency if their party is not united?
Because there are no shorter memory spans than those in politics, perhaps it’s understandable that much of the media seems to have forgotten the bitterness of the 2008 contest for the Democratic nomination between Clinton and Barack Obama. A short trip down memory lane should be enough to dispel the myth that the 2016 contest has in some way been uniquely divisive.
It pays to look back at some of the exchanges between the two candidates in the party’s 26 (yes, 26) debates. None of these were more acidic than the January 21, 2008 debate in South Carolina. Here are some of the highlights:
- Clinton: “It is sometimes difficult to understand what Senator Obama has said, because as soon as he is confronted on it, he says that’s not what he meant. The facts are that he has said in the last week that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years.”
- Obama: “While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.”
- Clinton: “I was fighting against [the Republicans’] ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Resco, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.”
- Clinton: “Senator Obama, it is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern.” (This was followed by audience booing.)
The following exchange — over an older clip dredged up by the Clinton campaign of Obama calling Ronald Reagan a “transformative president” — is particularly illustrative of the rancor of the debate:
Clinton: You talked about Ronald Reagan being a transformative political leader. I did not mention his name.
Obama: Your husband did.
Clinton: Well, I’m here. He’s not. And…
Obama: OK. Well, I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes.
While that night’s debate was particularly venomous, it wasn’t much of an outlier. Take a look at the testy exchange over health care and campaign tactics that opened the February 26 debate in Ohio, for instance; or Obama’s attack on Clinton’s inconsistency in the October 2007 debate in Philadelphia (“Senator Clinton in her campaign … has been for NAFTA previously, now she’s against it. She has taken one position on torture several months ago and then most recently has taken a different position.”); or Clinton’s accusation of plagiarism in the February 21 debate in Austin, Texas (Clinton: “[that’s] not change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox.” Obama: “Come on.”).
Mind you, this was when they were trying to be civil. Outside of the debates, the campaign attacks could be particularly biting. When in mid-April Obama said that working class voters clung to guns, religion and prejudice out of the bitterness created by the loss of industrial jobs, the Clinton campaign immediately seized on it. Clinton called the remarks “demeaning,” as well as “elitist, out of touch and frankly patronizing” and campaigners soon began handing out stickers in North Carolina printed with the words “I’m not bitter.”
When in response to the remarks Clinton spoke about how her father taught her to shoot a pistol out in the countryside as a young girl, Obama mockingly called her “Annie Oakley … like she’s on the duck blind every Sunday. She’s packing a six-shooter.” “Shame on her. She knows better,” he said. A Clinton spokesperson fired back that “this is the same politician who spent six days posing for clichéd camera shots that included bowling gutterballs, walking around a sports bar, feeding a baby cow and buying a ham at the Philly market (albeit one that cost $99.99 a pound).”
Petty squabbles like this were woven throughout the campaign. In late February, Clinton angrily accused Obama of “using tactics that are straight out of Karl Rove’s playbook” when the Obama campaign handed out fliers in Ohio that made “blatantly false” allegations, such as her having been a “champion” of NAFTA. (For the record, she had been). “Shame on you, Barack Obama,” she said. Obama called her outrage “tactical,” and he may have had a point given the Clinton campaign had spread some misleading fliers of its own a month earlier regarding Obama’s record on abortion.
In March, Clinton jumped on the pile-on over Rev. Jeremiah Wright, with the Obama campaign countering that Clinton was simply trying to divert attention from her lie about dodging sniper fire in Bosnia. A month earlier, a Clinton spokesperson sent an email to the media containing articles detailing Obama’s tenuous link to former Weather Underground member William Ayers, which would go on to become a much bigger issue in the general election once Obama clinched the nomination.
An Obama spokesperson replied that the Clinton campaign should be more worried about Bill Clinton’s pardon of some of the same group’s members in his final days as president. Nonetheless, Clinton aides continued to bring up the issue as late as April. Meanwhile, a prominent Clinton backer speculated whether Obama ever dealt drugs as a young man.
Central to Clinton’s campaign was the idea that Obama was not ready to lead, and that he was naïve and inexperienced on foreign policy. “We’ve seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security,” she warned in a speech at George Washington University. “We can’t let that happen again.”
This strategy produced the notorious “3 a.m. ad,” which warned that while American children were “safe and asleep” at the titular hour, a phone was ringing in the White House. Would the American people vote someone in to answer it who was “tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world”?
Obama’s campaign manager shot back that “Senator Clinton already had her red phone moment” in 2002 over the Iraq War, and that she “gave the wrong answer.” Others criticized her for potentially giving Republican nominee John McCain ammunition in the general campaign. This did not deter Clinton, however. A few days later in March, Clinton was telling reporters that “[McCain] will put forth his lifetime of experience. I will put forth my lifetime of experience. Senator Obama will put forth a speech he made in 2002.” In other words, she was openly suggesting her Republican opponent would be a better leader on foreign policy than the potential nominee of her own party.
Although Clinton began getting pressure to end her campaign as Obama started pulling ahead, similar to how Sanders has been for months, she refused to bow out. “We just need to relax and let this happen,” she said at the end of March. “Nobody’s talking about wrecking the party.”
In a letter she sent in late May, she elaborated. “I am in this race because I believe staying in this race will help unite the Democratic Party,” it read. “I believe that if Senator Obama and I both make our case — and all Democrats have the chance to make their voices heard — everyone will be more likely to rally around the nominee.” This was not long after she cited the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in the summer of 1968 as a reason to stay in the race (something she did multiple times) which she was immediately and widely excoriated for.
Much has already been written about the racial undertones of Clinton’s 2008 run, but it would be remiss not to at least mention some of the essentials. Bill’s comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson is typically cited, as is Hillary’s warning that “Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again.”
There was also her attack on Obama for having been endorsed, unwillingly, by Nation of Islam leader and anti-semite Louis Farrakhan. Although Clinton acknowledged Obama had denounced him, she insisted in a debate that he also “reject” him, even though, as Obama pointed out, the words meant substantially the same thing. Then there was the infamous 60 Minutes interview in which Clinton said she took Obama “on the basis of what he says” that he wasn’t a Muslim, and denied that there was any evidence for it, “as far as I know.”
These undertones at times became overtones. One Clinton campaign strategy memo, which was revealed after Obama’s nomination, advised that Obama’s “roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited,” in explicit reference to his “boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii,” and asserted that America would not elect someone “who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.”
“Let’s explicitly own “American” in our programs, the speeches and the values,” it stated. “He doesn’t.”
In March, former Vice Presidential nominee and Clinton surrogate Geraldine Ferraro had to step down from her fundraising post after complaining that, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. … He happens to be very lucky to be who he is.” Following the volley of criticism she received, she told the press, “I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white.”
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton grumbled that the Obama campaign was putting out a “hit job” on him and intentionally feeding the media stories about race issues to distract them. In sharp contrast to his more recent comments, he also decreed Obama the candidate of the “establishment organizations.”
Of course, not everything negative came from the Clinton camp. One internal Obama campaign memo referred to Clinton as the senator from Punjab, due to her financial ties to India and the funds she had raised from Indian Americans. The campaign also put out a harsh radio ad that said Clinton “will say anything to get elected” and would “change nothing,” citing her vote for the Iraq War and her praise of NAFTA. The line was, perhaps unwittingly, recycled by Anderson Cooper in the first Democratic debate of 2015.
Obama himself didn’t shy away from attacking Clinton. He suggested she was “just like George W. Bush” when it came to national security (deeply ironic, given Obama’s own subsequent embrace of most of Bush’s national security policies), and criticized her for “trying to sound or vote like Republicans.” He also accused her of selectively using her years as first lady, complaining that “she has essentially presented herself as co- president during the Clinton years. Every good thing that happened, she says she was a part of.”
And for anyone thinking inter-party quarrels in Nevada and complaints of voter suppression are something unique to this year, think again. The Obama campaign similarly accused the Clinton campaign of skulduggery in the state in January 2008.
As with this year’s campaign, the supporters of both camps also received their fair share of publicity, too. As I’ve written about before, Obama’s “creepy” and “cultish” supporters were the “Bernie Bros” of their time, while the losing candidate’s supporters in 2008 were similarly reluctant to vote for the Democratic frontrunner. The PUMAs—standing for Party Unity My Ass — were Clinton supporters furious that Obama had snatched the nomination from Clinton in an “internal coup,” as one put it, and determined to not only deprive Obama of their votes in the general election out of spite, but to vote for John McCain, who was openly trying to woo them. One such supporter made headlines when she was caught on tape complaining that Democrats had jettisoned women for “an inadequate black male.”
Yet at the end of the day, even despite what was clearly one of the most bitter, divisive Democratic contests in recent memory — and certainly one much more personal and antagonistic than this year’s contest — the two candidates made amends, and the party came together and took back the White House while achieving record voter turnout.
2008 wasn’t even the first year this had happened. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s rival Jerry Brown (the current governor of California) was reprimanded for having “crossed the line in terms of inappropriate attacks” on Clinton, the frontrunner, and employing a “scorched-earth policy” of attacks on his record and character. This came after Brown had accused Clinton of “corruption” and “a scandal of major proportion” in a debate, over allegations that Bill had funneled money to the private law firm Hillary had worked for. Clinton had fired back that Brown should be “ashamed” and that he wasn’t “worth being on the same platform as my wife.” Earlier that month, Paul Tsongas, another rival, had called Clinton “cynical and unprincipled.”
At the time, 1984 was also viewed as a particularly acrimonious battle for the Democratic nomination. Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart both complained throughout the contest that the game had been rigged in Walter Mondale’s favor. Hart openly accused Mondale of winning contests by unfairly receiving money from “special interests,” which he charged he had been “tainted” with, and as late as the end of June, he continued to threaten to challenge 600 of Mondale’s delegate wins on the basis that they had been bought by labor union PAC money.
Hart cut ads against Mondale that accused him of bargaining with the lives of American soldiers (“Why do you run those ads that suggest I’m out trying to kill kids when you know better?” Mondale asked Hart in a debate), while Mondale did his own version of the 3 a.m. ad, warning of an “unsure, unsteady, untested hand” picking up the presidential telephone. The two refused to share the same stage at an April event by the New York Council on Foreign Relations, and in the end, the two came to a reconciliation thanks to an intervention from Ted Kennedy, patching things up at Mondale’s lakehouse. Granted, the Democrats went on to lose that election, but it was hardly because of unity issues.
Lined up with virtually any of these contests, this year doesn’t really compare. Virtually the only moment most pundits point to illustrate the personal and bitter nature of this year’s campaign is Sanders’ attack on Clinton as being “not qualified” to be president. For all its talk of “knife fights,” this was the only instance Politico cited, two separate times no less, to demonstrate how bitter and angry Sanders’ campaign has been publicly.
Even apart from the fact that this barb was a rhetorical inversion of this misleading headline by the Washington Post, it’s hard to see this as anything more than mild when compared to the rhetoric thrown about in previous contests — and especially given that the Sanders campaign has refused to attack Clinton on her emails, despite being continually baited and even explicitly urged to do so by the same media that now criticizes his campaign for divisiveness.
Even Democrats have said as much. While pundits and Clinton backers were wringing their hands over “party unity,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Sanders “a positive force in the Democratic Party.” Even Barack Obama said recently: “During primaries, people get a little grumpy with each other. …Every little speed bump, conflict, trash-talking that takes place is elevated.” He should know.
If the 2016 campaign isn’t uniquely divisive, then why is this claim continually being trotted out? Partly, it’s a classic narrative trope. But more than that, this anxiety around party unity also happened to coincide with Clinton’s tanking in the national polls against Trump, with a number of outlets explicitly tying Sanders’ staying in the race with Clinton’s weakening poll numbers.
Yet if this were truly the case, why were Clinton’s numbers going down while Sanders continued to handily beat Trump in a one-on-one match-up nationally? Could it be that Clinton’s steadily falling numbers are more to do with her own unpopularity than the supposed divisiveness of the ongoing campaign?
In truth, the complaints of “divisiveness” are an excuse for Democratic leaders who have deployed the institutional weight of the Democratic Party behind a deeply flawed candidate. It won’t be surprising to hear these same points deployed during the election and beyond, as Clinton and party loyalists demand a tamping down of criticism of their side for the sake of party unity to keep the big bad Republicans out of power. While there is logic behind this, it’s a trap those on the Left mustn’t fall into if they want to keep the Democrats honest.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.