Barack Obama....the Establishment Candidate?
by psychodrew, Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 08:39:15 PM EST
Everybody in Washington is fixated on this quote from Mark Halperin's and John Heilemann's new book Game Change. In 2006, as it became clear to the Democratic Party establishment that Hillary Clinton planned a presidential bid and that she would be the heavy favorite going into the election cycle, panic set in. She might be too divisive to the general election. She will be a drag on down-ballot candidates. In the summer of 2006, then Senate Minority Leader (soon to be Majority Leader) Harry Reid summoned then freshman Senator Barack Obama to his office to encourage him to run for the Senate.
The quote that has Washington in a tizzy falls at the end of the first paragraph (highlighted). What I am interested in are the five paragraphs that follow.
Years later, Reid would claim that he was steadfastly neutral in the 2008 race; that he never chose sides between Barack and Hillary; that all he did was tell Obama that “he could be president,” that “the stars could align for him.” But at the time, in truth, his encouragement of Obama was unequivocal. He was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama—a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” as he later put it privately.
Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination. He argued that Obama’s lack of experience might not be crippling; it might actually be an asset, allowing him to cast himself as a figure uncorrupted and uncoopted by evil Washington, without the burdens of countless Senate votes and floor speeches. And, unlike Clinton, Obama had come out forcefully and early against Bush’s Iraq incursion; in 2002, while he was still a state senator, he’d given a heralded speech in which he said, “I don’t oppose all wars. . . . What I am opposed to is a dumb war.” Reid wasn’t sure Obama could defeat Clinton. Probably he couldn’t. But he was the only person in the party who stood a fighting chance—the best available alternative.
Obama had heard these arguments before from other senators. His friend and Illinois counterpart, Dick Durbin, was urging him to run, but that was to be expected. More intriguing were the entreaties he was receiving from New York’s Chuck Schumer. Schumer’s relationship with Hillary had always been fraught with rivalry and tinged with jealousy; though she was technically the junior member of the New York team in the Senate, she had eclipsed him in terms of celebrity and influence from the moment she arrived on the Hill. By 2006, they had found their way to a mostly peaceful coexistence. Yet because of the circles in which he traveled, Schumer was more familiar than most with the tittle-tattle about her husband’s alleged infidelities. He heard people debating what Hillary should do to preserve her political viability when the scandal inevitably broke: Divorce Bill or ride it out (again)?
Schumer was also the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and, in that role, had seen Obama’s efforts up close on behalf of the party’s candidates. He was blown away by Obama’s fund-raising prowess and the enthusiasm he generated in states traditionally inhospitable to Democrats. The political handicapper in Schumer was fascinated by Obama’s potential to redraw the electoral map, a capacity Clinton surely lacked. In conversations with other senators and strategists in 2006, Schumer would make these points over and over. He made them to Obama as well, and repeatedly; in one instance Schumer even double-teamed him with Reid. Although Schumer was careful to signal that home-state decorum would prohibit him from opposing Clinton publicly—“You understand my position,” he would say—he left no doubt as to where his head and heart were on the question.
These were not the only senatorial voices importuning Obama. Daschle, too, was on the case, and so was a coterie of senators close to him, including Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both of North Dakota. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Barbara Boxer of California, and even Ted Kennedy—all were nudging Obama to take the plunge. Their conversations with Barack were surreptitious, a conspiracy of whispers. They told him that 2008 was going to be a change election and that he uniquely could embody transformation. They told him he might never get a better chance. They told him this could be his time.
But they also added the same caveats as Schumer. Keen as they were for Obama to run, they would never be able to bless him with an early endorsement. Coming out against Hillary would pose grave risks. The Clintons had long memories and a vindictive streak ten miles wide. If Hillary prevailed, they feared—no, they were certain—there would be retribution down the line. But they would root for Obama secretly, doing whatever they could to help without affronting the aborning Democratic dynasty.
While Senator Obama's campaign was depicted by the media--and by his supporters--as an insurgent campaign to take down the darling of the party elite--Hillary Clinton, the reality was that Senator Obama was pushed into the race a Democratic Party establishment fearful of Hillary Clinton's general election prospects, and the possible effects of her candidacy on down-ballot Democrats. Even as he was sparing with Sen. Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois on the Sunday morning talk shows as a Hillary Clinton surrogate, the senior senator from New York, Chuck Schumer, was plotting behind her back. In late summer 2007, when Obama appeared to be fading on the campaign trail, some of his donors began to grumble and privately urged him to start going after Hillary. So concerned was Sen. Schumer, that he used Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)--an early supporter of then-Senator Obama--as a back channel to encourage the Obama campaign to hit the Clinton campaign harder, to "take a two-by-four to Hillary."
While some might counter that this one book shouldn't been taken as proof that DC insiders secretly backed his campaign because of anti-Clinton antipathy (as opposed to his awesomeness), I'll remind you that this is not the first time that the acrimonious relationship between the Clintons and the Democratic Party establishment has bubbled to the surface. An overlooked story on Politico in January 2008 discussed the DC reaction to Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama.
Kennedy has been supportive of both Clintons in the past. But, according to advisers who have spoken with him, Kennedy was motivated to publicly bless Obama in part because he was offended by what he regarded as Clinton’s divisive and distorted arguments against his wife’s chief rival.
Bill Clinton, in other words, botched a big one — at a moment when Hillary Clinton can afford it least.
It is striking how many people around town seem to be loving it. But it should not really be surprising.
Clinton spent so long as the dominant personality in the Democratic Party that it is easy to forget: Lots of elite Democrats never liked the guy that much. Or, perhaps more precisely, their feelings of admiration were constantly at war with feelings of disdain.
The ferocity of anti-Clinton sentiments heard around Washington in recent days — as even some former Clinton White House aides say they are enjoying the Kennedy endorsement and the implicit rebuke of the Clintons — has reached levels that haven’t been seen for seven years. Clinton’s pardons in the closing hours of his presidency prompted a similar backlash.
As an aside, while this piece depicts the endorsement as a rebuke of Bill Clinton, Halperin and Heilemann (in an interview on MSNBC's Morning Joe) claim that Sen. Kennedy was among those who felt that Hillary would be a weak general election candidate and had been looking for a reason to throw his support to Barack Obama for some time. In fact, the authors claim that he had been privately mocking Bill Clinton's efforts to woo him, complete with an imitation of Bill Clinton's Arkansas accent. Former Pres. Clinton's now infamous "this guy would be serving us coffee" line (a line in which Greg Sargent suggests we shouldn't put much trust) provided Kennedy with the justification he'd been seeking.
While we should always caution in putting much faith in what is basically campaign trail gossip provided by anonymous sources with axes to grind, this did put a few events of the primary campaign in a new light for me.
First, a number of the Obama endorsements cited his oratory skills and his ability to inspire and unite people. Caroline Kennedy, for example, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times comparing Barack Obama to her father. What I'm wondering now is how much of that was total bullshit? Were all these DC insiders fawning over Obama's speeches really inspired by the candidate or were they grasping at straws to take down his opponent?
Second, how did this antipathy play out in Michigan/Florida battle? To refresh your memory, Florida and Michigan moved their primaries to the front of the schedule, in violation of Democratic Party rules, and the party stripped them of their delegates and the candidates did not campaign in those two states. Hillary Clinton handily won both contests. When it became clear that the two candidates were in a stalmate, the Clinton campaign suggested a re-do and both states began drawing up plans to do so. The Obama campaign would not agree to a primaries--but they would agree to caucuses, a format that played to their strengths--and the idea eventually died.
Around the same time, Clinton surrogates began pushing another argument--that if the campaign ended with Hillary leading in total votes and Obama leading in pledged delegates, the unelected superdelegates (party elders and elected officials given automatic votes at the convention) should give their support to Hillary. What did not receive much publicity at the time was that the majority of Democrats--including a majority of then-Senator Obama's supporters--agreed with the Clinton campaign.
Among Democratic voters, 59% believe the candidate with the most popular votes deserves the nomination while 25% take the opposite view. Barack Obama will almost certainly wind up with more pledged delegates than Hillary Clinton. However, in what might create a nightmare scenario for Democratic Party leaders, it is also quite possible that Clinton will wind up with more popular votes than Obama.
Still, 45% of Obama voters believe that the nomination should go to the candidate with the most popular votes rather than the candidate with the most pledged delegates. Just 32% of Obama supporters believe the candidate with the most pledged delegates should win.
It is true that at that time Hillary Clinton had virtually no chance of catching up in the pledged delegate count, even with new contests in Michigan and Florida. However, a Clinton victory in the new contests could have provided the party with the nightmare scenario that it wanted to avoid, an African-American candidate leading in one metric (pledged delegates) and a female candidate leading in the other (total votes). At the time, I believed that the re-votes were nixed because party leaders wanted to avoid making a difficult decision. After all, politicians often run on a platform of bold leadership and then avoid it as much as possible once elected.
In light of Halperin's and Heilemann's reporting, perhaps party officials really did put their thumbs on the scales to avoid such a nightmare scenario? Such an electoral outcome would have forced the party to choose between two constituencies with legitimate claims to the nomination, with polling data showing that Democratic voters wanted that nomination to go to the winner of the popular vote--Hillary Clinton--and the establishment wanting to supporter the candidate with the most pledged delegates--Barack Obama.
Perhaps signaling the intentions of the party establishment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi waded into the debate, telling George Stephanopoulos that the delegate vote leader would get the nomination.
"But what if one candidate has won the popular vote and the other candidate has won the delegates?" asked Stephanopoulos.
"But it's a delegate race," Pelosi replied. "The way the system works is that the delegates choose the nominee."
Perhaps they were willing to make that decision, but that would have forced those who had been working behind the scenes to undermine Hillary Clinton to make a public stand that they did not want to make.
Finally, I've been thinking about how all of this influenced how Barack Obama chose his cabinet and political appointees in the White House. There was some grumbling among progressives that his choices were too centrists, too "Clintonian". Some of candidate Obama's supporters were passed over for key positions. Sen. Kerry and Gov. Richardson both campaigned for the Secretary of State job, which ultimate went to Hillary Clinton (a testament to President Obama's character) and the administration dropped Gov. Richardson from the B-list Commerce Secretary appointment as soon as the whiff of scandal in New Mexico reached Washington.
While I have no doubt that Obama's desire to turn to people with expertise in the positions they were chosen to fill largely influenced his choices, could it be that Barack Obama was also informed by the nasty campaign he had just withered. He witnessed first hand how quickly one's allies could turn. While he must have been grateful to secretly receive support from party figures who were publicly neutral, he had to be constantly reminding himself that these same people would similarly turn on him on a dime. I'm curious about the degree to which this influenced his staffing decisions and his relationship with Congress. Perhaps this had something to do with his decision to push Congress to "own" the health care bill. He'd seen first-hand that in Washington, DC, promises mean nothing.
I suppose there is little point in assuring you that I'm not trying to re-ignite primary wars and that I am actually a fairly strong supporter of the president. I thought he ran a great transition and he chose good people to work for him. Although I believe that he has been a coward on gay rights, he had a great first year. He pushed a stimulus bill through Congress, drawing three GOP votes. He's on the verge of passing health care. He's done a great deal to improve our relationship with our allies and there's evidence that his outreach to our adversaries might be having some effect. Some will still think that I'm bitter about the primaries. I'm not. I'm over it, but you can say what you will.