Did Democrats Luck Into Obama?
Seth Masket is director of the Center on American Politics and a professor in the Department of Political Science. He has taught at the University of Denver since 2004. Masket's areas of research and expertise focuses on American political parties at the local, state and national level. Masket has published two books and has a weekly on-line column with Pacific Standard and is a founder and regular contributor to Vox.com's Mischiefs of Faction blog.
Recent speculation on the possibility of an Oprah Winfrey presidential bid has raised important questions about just how much power Democratic Party leaders have over their party’s most important decisions. Can a celebrity just take the party’s presidential nomination without any serious vetting of ideology and policy commitments (as happened recently with the GOP)?
To answer that question, it’s helpful to look at the events of 2007-’08, the interpretation of which remains somewhat unclear. In short, it’s hard to know whether the Democratic Party chose Barack Obama as an effective champion or just kind of got lucky that such a strong campaigner shared their views.
Obama ran in 2008 as something of a celebrity candidate, a critique leveled at him by Hillary Clinton and, later and more forcefully, John McCain. That is, he was famous and well-liked, but not for any particular accomplishments or experience. He attracted the attention of Democratic primary voters and others thanks to his memorable speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, a speech he made as a state legislator and candidate for US Senate.
He’d served only two years in the Senate when he put his presidential campaign together and announced his candidacy. This is considerably more political experience than Oprah has, of course, but far less than that possessed by Clinton or most of Obama’s other rivals that year.
Now, what Obama delivered as president was a series of policy achievements — on health care, the environment, student loans, economic policy, foreign affairs, and more — very much in line with longstanding Democratic Party goals. He proved to be a reliable agent for the party. Unlike with Donald Trump, Obama’s party didn’t need to spend much time or effort keeping him faithful to party goals, rationalizing his inexperience or outlandish behavior, or walking back its initial impressions that he was a “kook.”
(One could reasonably argue that Obama’s relative inexperience was costly during his presidency. After all, he seemed to legitimately believe that he could change Washington politics and find common ground with Republicans in Congress, and this may have undermined presidential/congressional negotiations on health care reform and budgetary matters. On the other hand, had the more experienced Clinton been the 2008 nominee, she very likely would have won but underinvested in field offices in the process, possibly resulting in fewer Democrats in the Senate, depriving Democrats of the filibuster-proof majority they enjoyed for nine crucial and productive months. There are a lot of what-ifs one could entertain in this particular rabbit hole.)
Arguably, the reason Democrats were happy with Obama’s performance is because the Democratic Party is a functional organization (or at least was in 2008), with the ability to examine candidates and make decisions about their electability and their likely faithfulness to the party’s agenda. And there’s at least some evidence that party insiders actively recruited Obama to run. The book Game Change notes efforts by Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, and others, concerned about Clinton’s electability but impressed with Obama’s early work, to convince him to run for president.
On the other hand, by some measures, the Democratic Party had already made a choice in 2008, and it wasn’t for Obama. Clinton had sewn up the bulk of available party endorsements by the time of the Iowa caucuses that year, normally a strong sign of party insiders’ preferences. After Iowa, however, Clinton’s endorsements flatlined, while Obama’s continue to grow until he became the choice of insiders. Seen in this light, Obama parlayed his celebrity into votes and delegates, with many party elites bandwagoning behind him.
We still don’t have a definitive answer as to which of the above interpretations of 2008 is correct, and we likely never will. But the answer is important nonetheless. If Obama was properly vetted and installed by party leaders, then that suggests the party may still be strong enough to make decisions about its nominees. If Oprah is serious about running, she’ll have to convince party leaders that she’s on board with key party commitments and has a shot at winning a general election, and they don’t have to nominate her if they’re not convinced.
On the other hand, if a popular celebrity can take the nomination regardless of his or her views, and Democrats basically got lucky that Obama was in line with their beliefs in 2008, then the party really has no such defenses to keep out Winfrey or some other celebrity. They may be just as vulnerable to a demagogue as Republicans are. And as we’ve seen, this is a dangerous place for a party, and a nation, to be.