John Edwards, Not Barack Obama, Was the Bernie Sanders of 2008

By
Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate At Dartmouth
In 2008, John Edwards wasn't just to Barack Obama's left on the debate stage.Photo: Darren McCollester/2007 Getty Images

As my colleague Jonathan Chait explained earlier today, the superficial parallels between Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential nomination campaign and Bernie Sanders’s 2016 efforts don’t bear much scrutiny of either candidates’ words. Though it’s understandable Team Sanders would like to depict its champion as promising a second chance at the “hope and change” Obama offered but never quite delivered, the 44th president’s inspirational rhetoric was always carefully couched in the language of pragmatism and achievable goals.

And to an extent now largely forgotten, Obama was not universally perceived as a candidate to Hillary Clinton’s “left.” Indeed, throughout the long, competitive 2008 nomination contest, Obama was often backed by self-consciously “centrist”politicians. They included senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri; former senator Sam Nunn of Georgia (who was quietly consulted on nuclear proliferation issues by Obama before his presidential campaign); governors Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, Brad Henry of Oklahoma, and Tim Kaine of Virginia; and a whole host of Blue Doggy House members ranging from Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and John Barrow of Georgia to Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Jim Matheson of Utah and many, many more. 

Can you imagine these worthies endorsing Bernie Sanders in a competitive Democratic primary? Probably not. 

There’s another dimension to the forgotten 2008 presidential race: The main candidate of self-conscious anti-corporate inequality-focused progressives at this point in the 2008 cycle wasn’t Barack Obama but John Edwards. Ralph Nader said of him before his campaign fell short in Iowa: “Edwards now has the most progressive message across a broad spectrum of any leading candidate I’ve seen in years.” He was the darling of the progressive “netroots.” Pressed by his wife, the late Elizabeth Edwards, and advised by Dean ‘04 guru Joe Trippi, Edwards in turn pushed the entire field to the left. Had he won in Iowa (and he, not Hillary Clinton, led in early polls), there’s no telling what might have been, or how quickly the bizarre drama of his personal life would or would not have come out. But he, not Obama, w0uld likely have been the progressive champion in the race.

I wouldn’t push the Sanders/Edwards analogy too far: For one thing, Edwards’s foundation for victory in Iowa was an older set of previous caucusgoers, not young people, and he even more than Clinton was thwarted by what ultimately proved to be a huge turnout. 

Indeed, the more you remember about 2008 the less it resembles this year’s run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire. Barack Obama was no Bernie Sanders, and many Sanders-style activists wept bitter tears on caucus night.