President Obama has stayed largely out of the 2020 Democratic primary for obvious reasons since former presidents don’t usually endorse candidates early on, but he did offer some advice to anxious Democrats over the state of a hectic race. The message from Obama? Democrats need to chill out and relax, the primary will sort itself out. Yes, it’s messy, but primaries are always messy and the same doom and gloom fears that are widespread over a splintered field and divided electorate crop up during every election cycle on both political sides.
He also said that the party should avoid what he called “purity tests” over which candidate can more strictly adhere to liberal orthodoxy on the issues, according to the NY Post:
Former President Barack Obama warned Democrats on Thursday against adopting “purity tests” in the presidential primary and said any adversity the candidates face in the contest will make whoever emerges an even stronger nominee.
“We will not win just by increasing the turnout of the people who already agree with us completely on everything,” Obama said. “Which is why I am always suspicious of purity tests during elections. Because, you know what, the country is complicated.”
Obama urged Democrats to “chill out,” saying, “The truth of the matter is that every candidate on that stage believes we should provide” better health care and education and address climate change.
He also noted the historic diversity of the Democratic field, which now includes five women, three black candidates, a Latino man and a gay man. He compared that to his own election as the nation’s first black president.
Having already won two solid presidential victories, it’s probably worthwhile, at least, for Democrats to pay some attention to President Obama’s advice. If anyone should know how to maneuver a wild primary, as was the case for Democrats in 2007-2008, it’s this man, who literally came out of nowhere as a junior senator to take the nomination.
He didn’t mention any specific candidates by name, as you wouldn’t expect him to, but the message is at least somewhat clear. Based on what he’s saying, it would seem Obama is urging Democrats to stick to a center-left moderate position and avoid drifting too far too off the playbook.
In fact, if you compare Obama’s positions on the campaign trail in 2007-2008 to the field today on the topic of healthcare, you’d find him fitting in the niche that wants to implement a universal health care system, but doesn’t want to totally eliminate private insurance.
Remember Obama’s famous line, “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” This was usually followed up with, “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep your healthcare plan.”
Turns out neither statement would end up being true since the changes brought forth by the Affordable Care Act forced millions of people onto different plans, often with different insurance networks which meant many people couldn’t see their usual doctor unless their doctor accepted their new insurance plan. But, I digress, those details are getting in the weeds for this discussion.
The point here is that, as a candidate, Obama walked a fine line between pushing things too far, perhaps like Sanders or Warren, but figuring out how to appear “revolutionary” without actually advocating for policies that would cause great upheaval in the economy or overall fabric of the country, even he supported them personally.
With this all in mind, including the statements from President Obama, it’s worth noting that some media outlets are observing some changes in the primary field and the general views of candidates as they refine their messaging:
Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta signaled a change in the 2020 election. The Democratic field is pivoting to the center.
Five months ago, in their first debate, the candidates jockeyed for positions on the left. From free college to “Medicare for All” to the decriminalization of unauthorized border crossings, they scrambled to comply with progressive litmus tests. On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and billionaire Tom Steyer kept up this tone, denouncing various industries and demanding “bold changes.” But around them, the political climate has shifted. And the candidates are shifting with it.
The Slate article argues that several factors in the past few months or so have played into this shift toward the center:
- A newfound respect for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after launching impeachment hearings with Biden and Klobuchar both praising her as a model of practicality since she opposes Medicare For All
- Recent victories by conservative Democrats in southern states, including Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in Louisiana, an ardent pro-life Democrat
- The backlash against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, including backlash from some Democrats, over how she would pay for expanded social programs like Medicare For All
Those dynamics, coupled with Buttigieg’s “moderate” stances on several issues this debate and the prior debate leading to his surge, and you have the recipe for a field that’s drifting toward the center, at least for now.
In the long run, Democrats should take comfort in Obama’s statements about sticking out the tough primary and how it will produce a better candidate for the general election. This is usually always the case as long as the party, whichever party, coalesces around a candidate in the end.