It’s all a reminder, though, that party often matters a lot more than candidates do. Thinking back to the primary, Barack Obama was the guy who was going to transform Washington and chart an alternative to Clintonism and prioritize energy reform and wrest foreign policy away from the class of Democrats who had mucked it all up so badly. His was supposed to be a new, or at least somewhat different, Democratic Party than we’d seen in the ’90s.
But then he got to Washington, sat down with the people who seemed to know what they were doing, and found that moving his agenda meant playing by the town’s rules, that the people with the most relevant experience to the tasks he needed done were mostly Clinton veterans, that the voters weren’t there for energy but were potentially there for health care, and that it made sense for him to put Hillary Clinton herself in the top foreign-policy slot. It’s hard to imagine that Hillary Clinton or John Edwards would’ve done anything all that differently. For all the sound and fury of the primary, the state of the party and of the country told you a lot more about who would be in charge and what they’d be doing than did the rhetoric of the candidates.
I think there are giant, heaping important elements of truth in that. But there are also gaps. There are moments when an awful lot really does hinge on the president himself. Lots of important Democrats thought it made sense to push ahead with health care after Scott Brown’s win. Lots of other important Democrats thought it made sense to surrender on health care after Scott Brown’s win. Both “camp surrender” and “camp advance” included influential members of the Obama administration, both camps contained people who’d worked for Bill Clinton and people who hadn’t worked for Bill Clinton, etc. But this was an important decision, not something sorted out on the staff level, so it turned out to be quite important that Barack Obama had an important job in the Obama administration. There’s a substantial chance the call could have gone the other way with someone else in that office.
Look back on it, the main reason I ultimately agree that party matters a lot more than candidate attributes is because even though people matter a lot, it’s hard to predict how they will matter. It turned out to matter, a lot, that in December 2009 Barack Obama was the kind of guy who wanted to gut it out and win ugly on health insurance reform. But I don’t think if you asked me in March of 2008 to say what I thought distinguished Obama from Clinton and Edwards that “desire to gut it out and win ugly on health reform” would have been high on my list. And actually I don’t think the candidates themselves are even in a good position to predict how they’ll react to the vicissitudes of governing.