The Clinton-Sanders Race Looks A Lot Like The 2008 Democratic Primary It's not the first time we've seen a bitter end to the Democratic primaries. In 2008, divisive moments came through personal attacks. But back then, Clinton and Obama pushed similar ideologies.
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Is Primary Rivalry Making The Democratic Party Stronger Like It Did In 2008?

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Is Primary Rivalry Making The Democratic Party Stronger Like It Did In 2008?

Is Primary Rivalry Making The Democratic Party Stronger Like It Did In 2008?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For the Record.


CHRIS WALLACE: Top Democrats are now getting worried about a mess or a train wreck, as some of them are calling it. You're going to have superdelegates who are unpledged who might vote against the democratically expressed -

MARTIN: A bitter primary season, candidates at each other's throats, the Democratic Party in crisis - but it's not 2016.


WALLACE: Either of these guys, Clinton or Obama, with any kind of an edge.

MARTIN: It's nothing new. Eight years ago, the Democratic Party was recovering after a brutal primary between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Now, the party is in a similar place. For the Record today, lessons learned from the 2008 Democratic primary with two political operatives who lived through it.

Are we ready? Are we rolling behind the glass? Yeah? OK. Can you, Mo, introduce yourself to me?

MO ELLEITHEE: Yeah, Mo Elleithee. I was senior spokesman and traveling press secretary for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

BILL BURTON: I'm Bill Burton. And fun fact, this moment is the first moment that I actually learned how to correctly pronounce Mo's last name.


ELLEITHEE: I appreciate that.

BURTON: And in 2008, I was the national press secretary for President Obama.

MARTIN: And presidential campaigns are hard work.

BURTON: You get up early.

ELLEITHEE: You are working crazy hours.

BURTON: You read as much as you can.

ELLEITHEE: I was on the road full-time.

BURTON: You react to what you need to, try to execute what you planned for that day and...

ELLEITHEE: ...It wreaks havoc on your dating life. You gain weight (laughter).

BURTON: We drank vodka and ate chicken fingers every night for dinner.

ELLEITHEE: It's terrible.

MARTIN: They sound like friends - right? - each fighting for a potentially historic win in camps that got increasingly competitive back in 2008.

ELLEITHEE: It was one of those things where on some level we are reveling together in that front row seat to history. But at the same time, I just want to punch them all in the nose.

MARTIN: That feeling intensified as the Democratic primary heated up. Mo Elleithee remembers the moment when then-Senator Obama seemed like a real threat.


UNDENTIFIED MAN: Please take your seats.

ELLEITHEE: It's the Jefferson-Jackson dinner - I think it was the JJ dinner in Iowa where Obama gave this speech that just blew everybody's minds.


President BARACK OBAMA: A nation healed, a world repaired, an America that believes again. Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.


ELLEITHEE: You know, I was on the ground in Iowa for a while. And at that point I realized, OK - like, this just got very, very real.

MARTIN: It also started to get personal.

BURTON: Campaigns, as much as they're laboratories, they're also very emotional organizations. And so all of the people who are involved feel so strongly and follow the ups and downs and the - you know, every minor slight in a newspaper story that comes out with...

MARTIN: ...It's funny because we always hear it's just politics. It's just politics. Is that true?

BURTON: Not inside the campaign.

MARTIN: There was one moment in particular that made both Mo and Bill - and the rest of the Democratic Party - cringe a little.


SCOTT SPRADLING: You see a resume and like it...

BURTON: It was a debate.


SPRADLING: ...Hesitating on the likability issue.

BURTON: And (laughter) Hillary Clinton said something about people liking her.


HILLARY CLINTON: Well, that hurts my feelings.

BURTON: And the president, in this awful, dismissive way, was like, oh yeah -


OBAMA: You're likable enough, Hillary.

CLINTON: Thank you so much.


BURTON: And it was just - every - you know, us watching at the campaign just could all feel it in the - in our guts that it was - it was a tough moment.

ELLEITHEE: We heard it as part opportunity, part evidence of an aloofness that we were trying to drive about Barack Obama. And - yeah, and really as one of those moments that might actually galvanize a lot of women supporters.

MARTIN: Because the truth of it was these two candidates didn't have a whole lot of light between them on policy issues. So the big moments of differentiation came through personal attacks.


CLINTON: So let's have a real campaign. Enough with the speeches and the big rallies.


OBAMA: Say, she didn't really like me when I was 20 points down.


CLINTON: Shame on you, Barack Obama.


OBAMA: A set of assertions made by Senator Clinton as well as her husband that are not factually accurate.

MARTIN: There were also real differences between the campaigns themselves, which Mo Elleithee thinks about to this day.

ELLEITHEE: I don't know that I've ever been as envious as I was of your team, Bill. You didn't get a lot of the outward-facing backbiting and backstabbing and leaking that plagued our campaign. You marry that with the fact that I just thought our - and a lot of us on the campaign felt this way, that our message just didn't match the time in the way that the Obama campaign's message matched the time.


OBAMA: If we cannot inspire the country to believe again, then it doesn't matter how many policies and plans we have. And that is why I'm running for president of the United States of America. And that's why we just won -

MARTIN: What were the final days of the campaign like for you, Bill? What was going on in your camp?

BURTON: In the final days, it was - the foot came off the gas pedal a little bit in terms of aggressiveness. And, you know, we were all just dead tired.

ELLEITHEE: Those final days were really interesting for me, too. And I'm very reflective on them now as I watch what's - what the current dynamic is between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and I listen to the Sanders campaign deliver a rationale for staying in the race. And I sometimes smile because I was the guy on the back of the plane making that exact argument to reporters about why we were staying in the race, because we were winning at the end. Mathematically, we already been eliminated, though.

And so it's not that dissimilar from - and why I actually have a lot of sympathy for my friends on the Sanders campaign right now who are make - it's hard - who are making that argument. It's easy. It's easy when people are still turning out and voting for you and you're still filling huge auditoriums and you still have a lot of very passionate supporters. It's easy to want to keep the fight going.

MARTIN: In 2008, Hillary Clinton did keep the fight going until June 7, when she conceded the race. Later that summer at the Democratic convention in Denver, Clinton took to the commission floor.


CLINTON: I move Senator Barack Obama of Illinois be selected by this convention by acclimation as the nominee of the Democratic Party.

MARTIN: Mo Elleithee and Burton were at the convention, too.

ELLEITHEE: I'll never forget. I was waving the colors and waving the flag and there was a button that was for sale in some of the stands around the convention center that was our logo with theirs, right? And it was a Hillary supporter for Obama. And so I bought it and I put it on. And I'll never forget being on the escalator on my way down as Bill was on the escalator passing me on the way up.

And I hadn't seen you in forever. And the first - you looked at me, you looked at that pin and the first words out of your mouth were nice pin...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ELLEITHEE: ...And just, like, kept going. And I was like, grr (ph).


BURTON: I would've given you a hug if I were on the opposite side.

ELLEITHEE: I'm sure, yeah. I'm sure you would've.


MARTIN: And of course, the question now is whether or not the Democratic Party will be able to hug and make up after the bruising primary of 2016 because Bill Burton says it is fundamentally different than eight years ago.

BURTON: Bernie Sanders is running against the establishment in a away where he feels wronged. He feels like this is a process that has made it impossible for him to win. And he's doing a lot of things that aren't just making his case but trying to burn the whole party down. And you know what? I think that there is a fair argument to be made that the process doesn't include enough voices.

And it's not one that feels totally democratic when you look at how caucuses are conducted and how delegates are awarded and why do superdelegates exist, things like that. But at the same time, he is not doing things that are going to make it easier for us to win in November. He's doing things that are going to make it harder.

MARTIN: Mo Elleithee says in 2008, that intense rivalry put the Democrats in a better position for the general election against the GOP nominee Senator John McCain.

ELLEITHEE: As hot as it got at times, we made each other better. We made the party stronger. We organized in all 50 states. And what's interesting is that the popularity ratings of both candidates actually grew within the Democratic Party. People liked both candidates more by the end than they did coming in. That's pretty remarkable.


ELLEITHEE: I don't know that that's happening this time.

MARTIN: We put that question to political correspondent Jamelle Bouie. Is this current primary battle making the Democratic Party stronger?

JAMELLE BOUIE: I think if that were the case in this election, if this were ending with Sanders and Clinton with high ratings, that Democratic Party leaders would not be as, I think, worried as they are right now. Unfortunately, for them this campaign has sort of resulted in Hillary Clinton's stark decline in terms of her favorability numbers.

And I think it has to do with a really critical the difference between now and then, which is that then, for all of their political combat, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were very ideologically similar candidates.

Sanders does come from a different wing of the Democratic Party, and he has made his campaign about that ideological choice. Sanders won't just have to endorse a competitor. If he endorses, he'll have to essentially say this person whose beliefs I've been railing about for the past six months in fact is OK.

MARTIN: Do you think that's even likely?

BOUIE: So it's a tough call, I think. One response is to say well, in 2008 something like half of Clinton voters said they wouldn't vote for Obama. But that was mitigated, again, by sort of their core similarities and the fact that Clinton, forthrightly and full-throatily endorsed Obama after the primary was over, after Obama had reached the threshold.

My own view is that Sanders has been a smart enough politician over the past year that I think he understands that his best bet for advancing his priorities is a Clinton presidency. And so I would expect, as someone who is animated primarily by advancing this cause - and not so much, it seems, by advancing themselves - that Sanders would make an endorsement of Clinton. How full-throated that is is a different question.


MARTIN: For the Record today, that was Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate. We also heard recollections of the 2008 primary from Mo Elleithee and Bill Burton.

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