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Why Sanders vs. Clinton is not a rerun of 2008

Finding patterns

Hillary Clinton has changed, the times have changed, and Bernie Sanders is not Barack Obama. 

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    Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spar during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by MSNBC at the University of New Hampshire Thursday in Durham, N.H.
    David Goldman/AP
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If Hillary Clinton supporters are having a sense of déjà vu, they can be forgiven.

Eight years ago, then-Senator Clinton was derailed in her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination by another, more charismatic senator who came in to her left with a compelling, idealistic message.

Now, yet another senator, with a different sort of charisma, threatens again to complicate Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination.

But 2016 isn’t a replay of 2008, for three reasons. The Clinton of 2008 isn’t the Clinton of today. Bernie Sanders isn’t Barack Obama. And the times have changed, in some ways dramatically.

Thursday night’s Democratic debate – the first in which Clinton and Senator Sanders faced off head-to-head – demonstrated these differences.

Clinton for president 2.0

After losing the Democratic nomination in 2008, Clinton didn’t retire; she became President Obama’s secretary of State. That deep experience in foreign policy and national security was evident in her debate performance, in which she was widely seen as crushing Sanders on those issues.

“Bernie Sanders knows too little about foreign policy to make sense,” tweeted Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View during the debate. “Hillary Clinton knows too much to issue persuasive sound bytes.”

The challenge for Clinton is that she has a national security record to defend, and if she’s the Democratic nominee, she will face persistent attacks on it. Exhibit A will be the assault on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012, in which four Americans died – and which ensnares Clinton to this day.

Also springing from her time as secretary is the controversy over her use of a private server, sparking an Federal Bureau of Investigation investigation into her e-mail practices. For Republicans, this is political red meat. Sanders took the Clinton e-mail issue off the table in the first Democratic debate back in October, but has since said it deserves scrutiny. Still, Sanders’s critique of Clinton’s national security record centers more on policy, including her vote in favor of the Iraq War back in 2002.

Eight years ago, Obama used that vote as a wedge to attract liberal votes away from her. Today, Clinton’s Iraq vote is still a talking point among Sanders supporters, but it’s domestic matters that hold more sway. Sanders is calling for a “revolution” – free college, universal health care, break up the big banks, get money out of politics – while Clinton calls herself a “pragmatic progressive.”

In addition, Clinton’s relationship with Wall Street shadows her today in a way that it didn’t in 2008. After leaving the State Department in 2013, she earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from Wall Street firms, and has accepted millions more into her campaign from wealthy donors.

In Thursday’s debate, she sought to play down the influence of “one street in our economy,” but that only opened the door to the populist Sanders.

“Madam Secretary, it is not one street,” the Vermont senator said. “Wall Street is an entity of unbelievable economic and political power.”

A final key way in which Clinton 2016 differs from Clinton 2008 is her emphasis on gender. Eight years ago, she played down the significance of her bid to be the first woman president, ceding the historical ground to the man who would become the first black president. Today, she’s playing up her gender and dominance among women voters, and practically shouting “first woman president” from the rooftops.

Sanders vs. Obama

The differences between Clinton’s two main primary foes of 2016 and 2008 are self-evident. Obama in 2008 was a cool, 40-something black man offering a vague, aspirational message of “hope and change.” After eight years of President George W. Bush, weighted down by an economic crisis and two wars, the fresh-faced Obama captured the imagination of Democrats with his charisma and a promise of better days ahead.

Today, Sanders, too, emits a certain charisma – or perhaps it’s the anti-charisma of a 70-something Jewish guy who doesn’t smile much but who has held the same views for decades and whose young supporters call him “genuine.”

Sanders seemed to run, at least initially, as a “message” candidate – someone who wanted to make sure Clinton faced a left-wing critique and didn’t march to the nomination unopposed. In the 2008 cycle, Obama started out as a long-shot, like Sanders, but soon established himself as a plausible contender not just for the Democratic nomination but also for the presidency.

In 2016, Sanders has notable strengths as a candidate, not least his fundraising. In January, he took in more than Clinton, and as always, in small-dollar donations, a sign of buy-in from average Americans. But he is more ideological than Obama – and has no intention of softening his image, according to his campaign manager.

“He is honest about his philosophies as a democratic socialist,” says Jeff Weaver, asked if Sanders would play down that label if he won the Democratic nomination. “I think everybody knows it.”

How the times have changed

In 2008, the presidential race was waged amid two overseas wars and the worst recession since the Great Depression. Today, economic challenges remain, though with less urgency, and the national security challenge is more globalized with the rise of the Islamic State and home-grown terrorism.

Domestically, the political landscape has changed since 2008 with the rise of populism, as seen in the conservative tea party and the left-wing Occupy movement. Where once a Donald Trump or a Sanders might have seemed out of place in presidential politics, there are now vocal constituencies to support them. Whether either can win his respective party’s nomination is questionable. But at the very least, each has had a profound impact on public debate.

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