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Revisiting the Past

Reading Riverdaughter’s post about “The Lord of the Rings,” and how Tolkien was inspired by Plato’s story about the Ring of Gyges in his own tale about Sauron, brought me to a much earlier RD post, from 2012, which also used Gyges as a starting point for her theme.

I was taken back to an earlier time, which in some sense seems just yesterday, and in another sense, a very long time ago. This was a few years after 2008, when The Confluence blog started as “A weblog for Democrats in Exile,” for so many people who were more than upset at how various Democratic power figures, as well as much of the media, maneuvered Barack Obama into being awarded the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton. .

I remember writing an essay in 2008 about how we, like the young boy in the musical “Camelot,” who wants to fight alongside King Arthur, but is told by the king to go back home, so that he can tell the story of “a place called Camelot,” needed never to forget or stop recounting our story. It almost brings tears to my eyes to recall that scene on stage. Arthur knew that at some point, no one would be around to properly recall what Camelot was like, and what had happened to it, and he wanted it not to be forgotten.

I thought then, that in our sped up, information saturated culture, eventually most would not remember the 2008 campaign. How many people still recall that Hillary won virtually every major primary, and that mostly all that Obama won were caucuses, which his people had cleverly figured out how to game? Locking the older Hillary supporters out of the voting room; throwing away their ballots; all this was not only recounted by people there, but there was film of much of it, the rest was anecdotal from those who witnessed it. But like most such things, it wafted away. History is written by the winners, it is said; and Obama had most of the media behind him, as well

The mythology they told was that here was Hillary, a major favorite to win the nomination, but Obama’s great charisma and ability turned the tide, and he won a stunning victory. Well, no, he lost primaries in New York, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and many others. He was going to lose badly in Michigan and Florida, but DNC Chairperson Donna Brazile cooked up a scheme to get rid of those votes, because the two states had moved up their primary a week or two. Brazile “punished them” by saying that the primaries were invalid. Obama did what he was told, took his name off the ballot in Michigan, to hide the fact that he would have lost by a large margin there. It was too late to do the same thing in Florida, and he lost by a very substantial amount.

No party had ever invalidated a primary, but Brazile was determined to get Obama nominated. Finally, she allowed Florida’s votes to count for half the delegate total, thus costing Hillary a bunch of delegates. For Michigan, she set up some kind of group which actually allocated delegates, and literally took delegates away from Hillary, and gave them to Obama, who was not even on the ballot. I have followed primaries for both parties for quite a while, and I have never seen something as blatant and partisan as that. But Hillary and her supporters were supposed to take that travesty with good-natured acceptance, even though it was literally a fixed contest.

And then there were the superdelegates. RD knows more about that, but there obviously was immense pressure put on them, particularly Black delegates, to switch their votes to Obama. What went on at the convention is almost too upsetting to contemplate. It may well have been that despite the Obama spin which the media endorsed; and even after awarding Hillary delegates to Obama, and halving Hillary’s delegate margin in Florida, she went to the convention with more delegates than he had; but some things went on, including pressure, threats, and maybe even miscounting votes, which got him the nomination.

Even if one wants to discount that, Hillary won virtually every major primary. The delegate awarding system which Brazile had cooked up, literally gave extra delegates to Black majority districts, the guise being her contention that districts which had gone by the largest margins for John Kerry in the 2004 election, should get extra delegates in the 2008 primary. This is utterly undemocratic, it goes against every tenet that the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for. But Brazile got away with it, because who was going to argue against Black majority districts being rewarded?

So Hillary would win an actual primary in a state like Ohio by ten points or so, and end up with about eight more delegates than Obama. Meanwhile, in a caucus state like Kansas, which Democrats had no chance of winning in the general election, Obama would literally pile up a 38-delegate margin, because the caucuses have this tiered situation, where if you lose out in one round of early compiling of votes, you don’t get any delegates from those districts and the winner could end up with a 78-22% margin and virtually all the delegates. That is where most of Obama’s delegates came from, caucus states where the vast majority of the people who showed up at the caucuses were young and aggressive people in their 20’s, who could stand up for ten hours; while the Hillary supporters were mostly older people who had regular jobs, and could not get off to stay at a caucus all day; and who were bullied by the Obama forces.

This is all true. One may well ask, “What is the point of going over it all now? It was four election cycles ago. It can’t be changed. Obama got elected to eight years in office, and Hillary never will be President. It’s over.”

Well, that is certainly in one sense a concrete reality. But even if one’s sense of justice is not still immensely upset by what went on in 2008, the consequences of it are significantly still with us. It is not over, though some would wish it so. And the ability to change the past is not a requisite for wanting to remember it, or learn about it; to mourn it, and to possibly gain some knowledge from it. We can’t change the history of the Bubonic Plague in 14th Century Europe, or the rise of the Nazis in the 1930’s, but we can analogize to our current era, and very possibly there are parallels to be made, and terrible lessons to be learned if we want to avoid such a course. So it is never over. This is obviously not comparable to those examples, but it stands for the general principle of not just burying the past because it is upsetting or inconvenient to consider it.

We can argue about how effective a president Obama was. My sense is that he was not very effective, in terms of advancing the important agendas of the Democratic Party. One might contend that he would have been, had he not been hamstrung by Republicans. But that avoids the absolutely crucial fact that under Obama after 2008, the Democrats lost something like 87 House seats, 10 Senate seats, a host of governorships, and perhaps most importantly, just about all of of the state legislatures in all but Deep Blue states. Once the Republicans got in there, they have entrenched themselves. We eventually got rid of terrible Republican governors in Michigan and Wisconsin, but Republicans still control the state legislatures in those states, and even in Pennsylvania.

And Republicans, with no shame and no restraint, use that power to try to pass bills over the governor, and to limit the actual power of the governor. And that is how we are seeing this immense push to rewrite voting laws, even in states with Democratic governors, in an effort to make it impossible, or very, very difficult for Democrats to win there. And if they get the governorships back, they will gerrymander the states further, leading to what leading Democratic voting rights attorney Marc Elias characterizes as the potential of a Republican Party which loses by sixteen million votes nationally, managing to have enough of the levers of power in states, to actually control the country.

Did Obama cause all of this? No, but he certainly was a major factor in it. One of the most important jobs of any President, is as leader of his Party. Obama never seemed to want that role. He almost never talked about the history of the Democratic Party, or praised any former Democratic Presidents.. He virtually never criticized the Republican Party as an entity. For whatever reasons, he chose the role of someone who transcended politics, rose above partisanship, a virtual figure out of time and place, maybe someone to be venerated as the religious figures of old. In the meantime, the Republicans basically stomped all over him electorally. He couldn’t get anything passed after 2010.. He couldn’t even get his crucial swing seat Supreme Court nominee a hearing, much less confirmation. He hardly even tried to.

And yet Obama is adulated in many circles, though perhaps not quite as much as a few years ago. But enough so that his campaign people: Axelrod, Plouffe, Favreau, Lovett, Gibbs keep showing up on television as the gray eminence sages of the party, the ones who commandeered this incredible victory of Obama over Hillary in 2008. They were not, they are not; and I do not enjoy seeing them lecture to everybody from the pedestal that certain people put them on.

Finally, and most significantly, where are we now as a Democratic Party, compared to where we might have been had Hillary gotten the nomination in 2008, and almost surely would have won election, since she was more popular then, did not have Russians interfering with elections, and had a decent man to oppose as the Republican nominee, who would never have dreamed of conspiring with any foreign power to cheat in the election? And she also would have gotten the same benefit, maybe more, than Obama got, from the housing market and economic collapse which happened a couple of months before the election.

Hillary was always concerned about helping downticket Democrats, while Obama was not. Hillary is a Democrat, and has an issue-oriented political ideology. The stories, which anyone is welcome to refute based on data, were that virtually all the money sent to the Democratic Party from 2008-2015, went to Obama’s coffers, not downticket candidates. Obama was so unpopular in certain districts that the Democratic candidates discouraged him from coming there to campaign for him.

And while we might give him credit for inspiring a large turnout in 2008 which did help downballot, too much of his base didn’t feel like coming out to vote in 2010 and 2014 so that the Republicans could swamp the Democrats even with only 1% more of the overall vote. All Obama could say in 2010, was, “We got shellacked,” which Republicans laughed at, and which did the Democrats no good at all. And it proceeded to happen again in 2014, although losing all those seats in 2010, meant that there were somewhat less of them to lose that time. Virtually every one that they could lose under his tenure, they lost. In that specific sense, it was the most unsuccessful Democratic regime since the parties realigned around 1890.

So I think that this is not about wanting to go over the same thing again, or “beating a dead horse,” an image that I have always hated, and which an unpleasant 8th Grade Social Studies teacher said to me once, when I was perhaps unwilling to concede to him on a subject which I was sure I was right about. I think it was, and is, a terrible lost opportunity, a lesson, and a warning. Unless we find a way to turn around some of those state legislatures, we are never going to get close to where we want to go, in terms of being able to get important policy agendas passed on guns, climate, substantially getting corporations to pay any kind of reasonable share of the economic costs of running the country, rather than continuing to fob it off on the middle class and poor.

And we may never get free and fair elections again, if they have the power to stop them. That is what we lost by getting shellacked in state after state under someone who would scarcely identify with the Democratic Party, and who even praised Republicans for finally not refusing to raise the debt ceiling, because “he gave us 98% of what we wanted,” according to Speaker John Boehner.

Have you noticed that Trump, the Republicans, and the Wall Street Journal and CNBC, have managed to get interest rates so low, that it is impossible for the middle class and retirees to save any money? The 2008 collapse was used as the excuse to flood banks with free money. Rates finally crept up a bit at the end of Obama’s tenure, but Trump intimidated the Federal Reserve to drop them again to almost 0%. Disparities in income and wealth did not meaningfully improve under Obama, and increased under Trump. Our best economic time was under Bill Clinton. And I believe that had Hillary become President, she would have had similar success; and Bill would have been there to give counsel.

For the eight years of his presidency, very little was done to help the working class under Obama, probably largely because the Republican Congressional majorities would not allow it, although Obama, “the man who transcended partisanship,” kept trying for a deal which would cut Social Security and Medicare in exchange for some tax increases on the wealthy. And the long-term effects of the devastating election losses in his administration have kept Republicans very close to dismantling the whole society. This connection and effect cannot be passed over

So unless one wants to ignore history, scoff at lessons, and wish to make every election cycle a tabula rasa, with no effect from, or on, anything else, it would be imperative to reassess the Obama Presidency, and how he got nominated way back when; and what caused RD to feel that it was important and necessary to establish this fearless, intellectually stimulating and cathartic blog. And I will add, that if we feel compelled to nominate another Obama (and I’m not talking about race, but about charm and image, and a “New Age” appeal, as opposed to an in-depth knowledge of issues, and a willingness to stand up strongly against Republicans and their policies), we will have a similar result.

So it does matter. And it did matter, that the person who was clearly more popular with Democratic primary voters, and who won virtually every single major primary, and who was more concerned with, and more knowledgeable about, issues and policy, did not get the nomination in 2008. That and the blatantly undemocratic unfairness with which the process was conducted. We should not and will not forget, it would be both an injustice and a mistake to do so. Even as we beat on, boats against the current, we are borne back ceaselessly into the past. Fitzgerald had it exactly right.