Not Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. They spent so much energy running on an implied — and often severe — critique of the Obama presidency and attracting such big, young crowds, that it seemed the party’s momentum was sharply leftward.
But the end result of Iowa‘s complex Democratic caucus contest — once the Iowa Democratic Party was finally able to tally and release most of the numbers — was a declaration that Democrats are not so ready to reforge their party into a far more radical political institution. Obama-ism showed it is still politically potent.
Buttigieg’s Monday night victory address sounded as if it was written by an Obama speechwriter, with talk of “unifying a rising American majority.”
“The skeptics said ‘not now,' 'not this time.’ All this talk of ‘belonging,’ of bridging divides, is too naive. Too risky,” he said. “Iowa, you’ve proved those skeptics wrong.” In case you could possibly miss the point, on the campaign trail he talked about the importance of “hope.”
Barack Obama made such sentiments seem sincere rather than trite. Buttigieg can, too. Even though, as much as Buttigieg talks about moving on from the past, his pitch reflects a model developed and tested 12 years ago.
The Buttigieg-Obama comparison is more than stylistic. Buttigieg — purposely, obviously — positioned himself to be the substantive heir to the former president. He deflected criticisms that he lacked Washington experience by using it to distance himself from the capital’s tiresome ideological food fights.
Obama frequently argued against a “false choice” between competence and energy, pragmatism and idealism. What distinguished Buttigieg was not his policy platform, which closely resembled that of many of his opponents, but how he allowed voters to feel as though they could support him without selling out or joining the barricades.
Campaigning in Iowa, Buttigieg criticized former vice president Joe Biden for lecturing Democrats to “fall back on the familiar.” On the other hand, he accused Sanders of insisting that “you’re either for a revolution or you gotta be for the status quo, and nothing in between.”
Buttigieg pitched mainstream liberal policy, such as a generous public option “to get health care to every single American” and the biggest expansion in college affordability “since the GI Bill,” in terms that made clear that these policies are as progressive as they really are, even as he argued that Democrats must not allow Sanders and Warren’s jacobinism to repel centrists.
“The one thing we cannot afford to do is get caught up in the politics of the past,” he said in Anamosa, Iowa, on Saturday, warning Democrats to avoid “reliving the 2016 primary.”
“I definitely do not want 2020 to resemble 2016 in any way,” he said. No, he wants it to resemble 2008, when a well-spoken, young, Midwestern outsider representing a traditionally disfavored minority group and pitching both boldness and conciliation stormed through Iowa to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
True, Buttigieg did not amp up turnout in Iowa the way Obama did in 2008. But exit polling suggests he built a diverse coalition of supporters — diverse for nearly-all-white Iowa, anyway — suggesting the sort of wide intraparty appeal that buoyed Obama his entire presidency. Rather than dominating one demographic group or another, he proved appealing to Democrats across the spectra of age, ideology and interests. Notably, he ran strong among the well-educated and those who described themselves as “somewhat” rather than “very” liberal, the stereotype of the Obama voter. The initial results reported Tuesday suggest Buttigieg also gained far more second-choice votes in Iowa’s caucuses, tallied after caucus-goers who favored different, lagging candidates were allowed to switch allegiances, than Sanders did. This implies that Sanders has fervent but limited support, whereas Buttigieg has broader appeal.
But Buttigieg is not a perfect Obama clone. Democrats’ concerns that he does not appeal to voters of color deter supporters, even in monochrome states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. The dynamics of the 2020 race are also different from those in 2008. Obama attracted, by default, support from those unhappy with a Democratic establishment, led by Hillary Clinton, that had favored the Iraq War. This cycle, the anti-establishment voters have fringier candidates from which to choose, such as Sanders.
Buttigieg must somehow expand his appeal to black Democrats, consolidate the establishment vote by sidelining Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and peel off enough anti-establishment voters from Sanders and Warren to win the Democratic nomination. And he must hope that former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg doesn’t totally upset the race. Given that Sanders leads polls in New Hampshire and that Biden is likely to stay in the race at least through South Carolina, that’s a narrow path to victory.
At stake are not just Buttigieg’s political fortunes but the direction of the Democratic Party. Is it still the party of Obama — or will it, as the Republican Party did four years ago, undergo a populist renovation that will alienate much of the country?