Dem’s deja vu of ‘08?

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ruth Mar­cus

— Is the pri­mary bat­tle be­tween Hil­lary Clin­ton and Bernie San­ders more like 2008 or 1980?

In other words, more like the con­test be­tween Clin­ton and Barack Obama, a long, some­times ac­ri­mo­nious fight that ul­ti­mately ended in a uni­fied party win­ning the pres­i­dency?

Or more like the bat­tle be­tween Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy, an ide­o­log­i­cal brawl that dragged on through the con­ven­tion and even­tu­ally saw the in­cum­bent Demo­cratic pres­i­dent de­feated?

Democrats need to hope for 2008 and, for now, that race seems the more rel­e­vant prece­dent. Yet they have rea­sons to fear a 1980 re­peat — and some who lived through that cam­paign are hav­ing un­wel­come flash­backs to its length, bit­ter­ness and dis­ap­point­ing re­sult.

The ar­gu­ment that 2016 more closely re­sem­bles 2008 rests on the im­por­tant cau­tion that, not­with­stand­ing Thurs­day’s gloves-off de­bate, hard-fought cam­paigns tend to get to this level of in­vec­tive, if not be­yond. Th­ese wounds al­ways seem gap­ing at the time; they tend to heal faster than ex­pected.

Dur­ing the 2008 cam­paign, Obama, much like San­ders now, ques­tioned Clin­ton’s judg­ment in back­ing the war in Iraq and ac­cused her of sell­ing out work­ers (“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,” he said in one par­tic­u­larly acid de­bate mo­ment). As with San­ders, Clin­ton in­sin­u­ated that Obama was un­pre­pared for the 3 a.m. phone call and naive about the dif­fi­culty of achiev­ing the change he was ped­dling.

Still, Clin­ton vot­ers who were pre­dicted to — who vowed to — sit it out eight years ago ended up com­ing around for Obama. In May 2008, exit polls showed half of Clin­ton sup­port­ers in In­di­ana and North Carolina in­sist­ing they would not vote for Obama over John McCain. In the end, turnout was high — and nine in 10 Demo­cratic vot­ers over­all backed Obama.

This year, if any­thing, the San­ders-Clin­ton split is less in­tense: A McClatchyMarist poll shows only one-fourth of San­ders sup­port­ers say­ing they would not back Clin­ton if she wins the nom­i­na­tion. It would be stun­ning if the re­sis­tance re­mained that high, es­pe­cially with the mo­ti­vat­ing ef­fects of Don­ald Trump or Ted Cruz on the GOP ticket.

Yet if Obama-Clin­ton was hard-fought, it was at bot­tom a less ide­o­log­i­cal cam­paign than the cur­rent Clin­ton-San­ders bat­tle, which ar­gues for the 1980 anal­ogy. “Obama, un­like Bernie, was not the can­di­date of the left,” said Obama’s for­mer chief strate­gist, David Ax­el­rod. “It was mostly a dis­agree­ment about a style of pol­i­tics. There is more of an ide­o­log­i­cal bent to the San­ders cam­paign, and in that re­gard the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is more dif­fi­cult.”

Hence the echoes of Kennedy-Carter, an­other, although even sharper, bat­tle for the soul of the party. At the con­ven­tion, Kennedy mounted an un­suc­cess­ful chal­lenge to party rules that bound del­e­gates on the first bal­lot. Fol­low­ing Carter’s ac­cep­tance speech, Kennedy be­lat­edly ap­peared on the podium for a per­func­tory hand­shake.

“I think it’s more like Kennedy-Carter,” Ger­ald Raf­shoon, who lived through that time as a se­nior Carter aide, said of the San­ders-Clin­ton fight. “Bernie’s mes­sage is re­ally res­onat­ing with the Demo­cratic base. He’s got a huge fol­low­ing, and if he stays in the race past the time that she’s the in­evitable nom inee, it can hurt her in the same way Kennedy hurt Carter.”

If the state of the econ­omy and the pop­u­lar­ity of the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent are pre­dic­tive of elec­tion re­sults, this cam­paign looks far dif­fer­ent from 1980. Carter was an un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent over­see­ing a dis­mal econ­omy with soar­ing in­fla­tion and high un­em­ploy­ment. At this point in the 1980 cam­paign, his ap­proval rat­ing was 39 per­cent, whereas Obama has cracked 50 per­cent in some re­cent polls — a dis­tinc­tion that leads some to re­ject the 1980 com­par­i­son.

“Carter didn’t lose be­cause Kennedy chal­lenged him,” said Bob Shrum, who wrote Kennedy’s rous­ing con­ven­tion speech. “Kennedy chal­lenged him be­cause Carter was go­ing to lose.”

At the same time, Clin­ton’s own neg­a­tives are in Carter ter­ri­tory, or worse. A new CBS News poll has her at 31 per­cent fa­vor­able, 54 per­cent un­fa­vor­able. Among Democrats, the vit­ri­olic cam­paign is tak­ing a toll: Gallup’s Frank New­port re­ports that Clin­ton’s net fa­vor­able rat­ings among Democrats and Demo­cratic-lean­ing in­de­pen­dents have dropped from plus 63 points in early Novem­ber to just 36 points now. If it was ever true that Clin­ton ben­e­fited from hav­ing a pri­mary chal­lenge, that’s no longer the case.

If Democrats are lucky, the 2016 cam­paign will evolve along the lines of 2008. But 1980 lingers as a cau­tion­ary, and in­creas­ingly rel­e­vant, tale.

Ruth Mar­cus is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at ruth­mar­cus@wash­post. com.


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