The Republican presidential primary contest may finally be under way in earnest, but it's hard to say just what this nominating race is about. Right now, the GOP candidates are mostly competing to see who hates government and Barack Obama the most, an argument unlikely to prove enlightening. But it doesn't have to be this way. At this time four years ago, Democratic voters were watching a primary race that did an excellent job of previewing the challenges we're facing now. Much of what Democrats are grappling with today -- their anger at Republican obstructionism, their disappointment with the president -- was hashed out when Obama was an upstart senator trying to convince his own party that he could handle the presidency. We may not have known all that would happen, but the way Obama's presidency has unfolded shouldn't have been a surprise.
As in most primary races, the 2008 contestants had only small differences on policy (a large field winnowed down early on to Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards). Electability, usually a key concern of primary voters, was of marginal concern -- with George W. Bush's approval ratings in the 30s, a declining economy, two unpopular wars, and a general fatigue with Republican governance, Democrats were pretty sure they'd win in the fall. So the discussion turned to governing, specifically, how each candidate would overcome Republican opposition to a progressive agenda. Mark Schmitt, then the editor of the Prospect, called it the "theory of change" primary. The three candidates offered distinct answers to this question, which Clinton described as follows: "Some believe you can get change by demanding it. Some believe you can get change by hoping for it. I believe you get change by working hard." Edwards insisted on fighting. Obama claimed that he could make Washington operate in a new way: by bringing people of good faith from both parties together to solve problems.
Ask liberals what their principal complaint about Obama is, and they sound like they're pining for some mixture of the confrontational style Edwards advocated and the resilience in the face of Republican opposition Clinton touted. But Obama advocates neither stance, and that was clear early on. Clinton said he was naive. "We don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered," she said in a debate in January 2008.
When she argued that dealing with the opposition was going to be difficult and unpleasant, Clinton was right, and it's safe to say that Obama's theory of change has failed. That isn't to say that he himself has failed but that he was wrong about one of the central arguments of his candidacy. That argument said gulfs can be bridged, and what seem like intractable differences may prove not to be so great after all. If you bring everyone together, hear their concerns, and treat them respectfully, you can arrive at policy solutions together. In 2011, "naive" doesn't begin to describe how that sounds. Obama achieved significant victories during his first two years, including financial reform, student-loan reform, the end of "don't ask, don't tell," and most notably, the Affordable Care Act. None of them, though, happened because his eagerness to reach across the aisle yielded results. In every case, he tried and failed to persuade Republicans, then found ways to circumvent them.
It seems clear now that Obama's theory of change never accounted for the Republican Party as it has been in recent years, much less as it would become in the wake of its takeover by Tea Party fanatics in 2010. Ironically, in 2008 many Obama supporters were concerned that if Clinton became president, the right's crazed hatred of her would mire her presidency in a swamp of conspiracy theories, congressional obstructionism, and one venomous fight after another, a replay of the unpleasantness of the 1990s. Obama, with his message of conciliation, would at least not engender that kind of noxious opposition. Good thing we dodged that bullet. Up through the early primaries, even many conservatives were showering praise on Obama, and Clinton's warnings about the right sounded pinched and pessimistic. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in the summer of 2007, "The choice between Clinton and Obama is the choice between a defensive crouch and a confident engagement. It is the choice between someone who lost their beliefs in a welter of fear; and someone who has faith that his worldview can persuade a majority."
Even those of us trying to be clear-eyed and logical were drawn to the more hopeful and optimistic message. We were persuaded more by the future we wanted to see than the future we feared. I'll admit that my own support for Obama came in part from an entirely speculative belief that he would be more ideologically stalwart than Clinton, who had always been a moderate on many issues. For instance, while both candidates' health-care plans contained a public option, I suspected that Clinton didn't support it deep in her heart and included it in her plan mostly so it could be bargained away. That turned out to be exactly what was true of Obama. But he gave up the public option without getting anything in return.
Not everyone was so enraptured, of course; in December of 2007, Paul Krugman, who was highly skeptical of Obama at a time when the rest of us were swooning, wrote, "Nothing Mr. Obama has said suggests that he appreciates the bitterness of the battles he will have to fight if he does become president, and tries to get anything done." Some progressives are now so frustrated that they are asking whether things would have worked out better had Clinton been the Democratic nominee. That question is ultimately unanswerable, but no one who was paying attention in 2007 and 2008 can say that the Obama they got wasn't the one they should have expected.