Early in the 2008 presidential election cycle, Hillary Clinton seemed like the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. But the war in Iraq, which she had supported in 2003, was spiraling out of control. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers were dying every year, as were thousands of Iraqis. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the war would cost $2.4 trillion. Many Americans, especially Democrats, were experiencing a mix of anger, regret and frustration. Most believed the war was a mistake and wanted a timetable to get out of it.
That hunger for moral clarity provided then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who had opposed the war from the start, with the opening he needed to capture the nomination, and then the presidency. It’s no wonder that Democrats crave something similar today: an issue that would help sort out an unwieldy primary field and reunify the country in their party’s favor. But though Democrats are clear that defeating President Trump is an urgent priority, none of them has a monopoly on that issue. And even if they did, that’s a message of division, not of reconciliation.
The United States is in better shape economically and abroad than it was in 2007, but many on the left might still want an Obama-like figure. Trump’s immigration restrictionism, traditionally Republican economic policies, withdrawal from international climate agreements and racial antagonism feel like a crisis to many progressives, and former vice president Joe Biden — the supposedly electable establishment poll leader — is far from their first choice. They want someone to run unapologetically from the left, beat Trump and Biden using moral arguments, and usher in (or at least try for) a new era of progressive policy.
It’s hard to overstate how much the Iraq War helped Obama upset Clinton in 2008. After George W. Bush won a second term in 2004, Americans started to steadily sour on the war and, as University of California at San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson documented, an increasing number of Democrats believed both that the war was going poorly and that it had been a mistake from the start. Obama stepped into that primary as the only viable, mainstream candidate (sorry, Dennis Kucinich) who had opposed the invasion from the beginning. That helped him build support with activists and the growing antiwar left and defend his brand. When other candidates attacked the “Hope and Change” candidate for having too little experience, he could parry by calling their foreign policy judgment into question.
Obama’s timing was perfect. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, the antiwar candidate of 2004, ran before the war lost broad public support. In 2016, by contrast, it was the Republican contest that was clarified by a single issue, though not a morally uplifting one. Donald Trump emerged from a crowded field by channeling resentment for immigrants in terms and in a tone that distinguished him from his competitors.
Ahead of 2020, Democrats are highly mobilized around a range of issues. Polling shows that they’re most interested in health care, the environment, Social Security, gun control, the economy and, of course, beating Trump. But no candidate has a unique, Obama-like claim to legitimacy or moral clarity on any of these concerns. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) says she’s “with Bernie” Sanders on health care, nobody blinks. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke might resemble Obama rhetorically, but, as analysts such as Harry Enten have pointed out, he doesn’t have a record or position that distinguishes him from his competitors. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) could copy his promise to take away AR-15s tomorrow without any perception that she was late to the issue of gun control.
Every progressive has credibility on every issue, so nobody stands out. As Dean pointed out to me, “This year, the interesting thing is that the radical issue is one that they all share. Which is that Trump is incompetent and ought not to be serving. And that’s something they all agree on.”
And if there is a candidate with a unique edge on that issue, the polls suggest that it’s Biden, not because of any galvanizing moral clarity, but on more prosaic grounds. Almost half of Democrats and Democratic-leaning registered voters believe that Biden has the best chance of beating Trump, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Most Democrats say they’re prioritizing electability over policy purity in this primary, and that’s helping Biden. They see Trump as a disaster that must be stopped and think Biden is their best bet to stop him.
That perception might not last. Biden might accidentally remind voters of his advanced age, and a loss in Iowa or New Hampshire could convince Democrats that he’s not as “electable” as he seems. But if Biden does lose — and there’s a very solid chance of that happening — it likely won’t look like or feel like Clinton’s 2008 loss to Obama. Instead of feeling a moral urgency about ending the Iraq War and the recession, liberals will feel a deep, constant fear that their nominee will blow this election and subject them to four more years of Trump.