The 2016 primaries were supposed to be smooth sailing for Democrats, in contrast to the free-for-all on the Republican side. Instead, the GOP has a presumptive nominee while Hillary Clinton continues to be dogged by Bernie Sanders, who, despite having almost no chance of winning the nomination, refuses to suspend his campaign. The animosity between the campaigns reached new heights after Saturday’s rowdy Nevada Democratic convention, where some Sanders supporters made death threats against party officials; Sanders later released an unapologetic statement that said “the Democratic leadership used its power to prevent a fair and transparent process from taking place.” Some party leaders now worry that the Vermont senator will destroy Democrats’ chances of holding on to the White House, by tarring the likely nominee with accusations of corruption and cheating.
But there is no reason to panic. After all, the Democratic primaries were much nastier in 2008, and yet the party won the White House. As Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama who was a top campaign official in 2008, tweeted on Wednesday:
As she begins to pivot to the general election, Clinton might be peeved by Sanders’s stubbornness. But her past (and political savvy, perhaps) handcuffs her from calling on Sanders to quit. She used to be in his position. On May 13, 2008, she said, “This race isn’t over yet. Neither of us has the total delegates it takes to win.” The claim was a dubious one, given that Obama’s delegate lead was virtually insurmountable. But Clinton’s argument that all Democratic voters deserved to be heard was a fair one, just as Sanders’s same argument is.
The problem in 2008 was the racial tinge to Clinton’s last-ditch defense: that Obama was a doomed candidate because of his alleged inability to win over white voters. On May 8, she argued that “I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” and cited an article whose findings she summarized thus: “Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.” The contrast between Obama’s base of black voters with the “hard-working” white Americans supporting Clinton, made on the eve of a primary in West Virginia, carried clear racial overtones.
Clinton’s rhetorical strategy of insinuating that Obama was too black to be president was echoed by her campaign. On CNN, Clinton surrogate Paul Begala claimed that Obama’s coalition of “eggheads and African-Americans” was too narrow to win. Former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro said, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.” When the Drudge Report posted a photo showing Obama on an official trip wearing Somali garb, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a Clinton surrogate, said on MSNBC “I have no shame or no problem with people looking at Barack Obama in his native clothing, in the clothing of his country”—an obvious nod to birtherism. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, dismissed Obama’s support in South Carolina by implicitly comparing him to a failed black presidential candidate: “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.”
Perhaps the most disturbing comment along this line came from Hillary Clinton herself, who in late May 2008 justified staying in the race by saying, “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.” This came after months of worry that Obama, as the first black candidate with a serious shot at the presidency, would be a target for assassination. Two weeks later, on June 7, she finally suspended her campaign.
This is not to say everything is fine in the Democratic Party right now. Some Sanders supporters deserve rebuke for their nastiness, and Sanders himself can be fairly chided for not reining in—or at least scolding—these overzealous followers. But nothing in the 2016 campaign matches the sheer ugliness of 2008. And that’s a hopeful fact, because if the Democrats could unite after the fratricide of the Obama-Clinton race, then it shouldn’t be much of a challenge to unite now.