Over the course of 86 long and futile years, fans of the Boston Red Sox convinced themselves that they were victims of a curse, incapable of winning the World Series because of their franchise’s decision to trade Babe Ruth. But the Red Sox finally broke the curse in 2004 and followed it up with another world championship three years later, and now the Fenway Faithful no longer carry themselves like snake-bitten misanthropes.
Something similar is happening to Democrats, who have spent much of this decade wondering if it just might be impossible for them to win a national election without a Clinton on the ticket. If Barack Obama does prevail next Tuesday, they will have done so for the first time in more than 30 years. And, especially if Obama’s margin is significant, it should free the party from the formidable shadow that has hung over them since Bill Clinton’s presidency ended.
It’s easy to see how it came to this: Clinton’s eight years in the White House are book-ended by Republican dominance.
When he first ran in 1992, the G.O.P. had supposedly established an electoral lock on the presidency, thanks to its dominance in the South. In the three elections before Clinton’s first campaign, the best Democratic performance was turned in by Michael Dukakis, who only lost 40 states worth 426 electoral votes. The G.O.P.’s position was seen as so mighty that every big-name national Democratic figure – Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore and so on – passed on the ’92 race, believing it was a hopeless cause.
But when the campaign had ended, Clinton’s warmth, empathy, youth and Southern roots – not to mention a sour economy – had conspired to shake up the electoral map. He won four Southern states, nearly picked off a few more, and beat George H. W. Bush by six points nationally – with 370 electoral votes, the best for a Democrat since L.B.J. Before ’92, even some Democrats had come to believe that theirs was primarily a Congressional party. Clinton proved they could be a White House Party, too. When he won reelection in 1996, he became the first Democrat since F.D.R. to do so.
Clinton seemed to take the magic with him when he left office. The Monica Lewinsky scandal that ate up most of his second term created a dilemma for Al Gore in the 2000 campaign – to use the president or to keep him on the sidelines. Gore opted for the latter option, and the debate over whether it was the right decision overshadowed much of the campaign – and lingers to this day.
Either way, Gore’s defeat only elevated Clinton’s standing in the party. Gore’s painful struggles to connect with voters on a personal level (recall the–who-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with test) clearly hurt his candidacy, rendering him vulnerable to the same kind of character assault that had worked so well for the G.O.P. in the pre-Clinton era – but that hadn’t worked on Clinton. In essence, Gore had failed miserably where Clinton had succeeded fantastically, and to many Democrats, this had been the difference between defeat and victory.
Those sentiments were only exacerbated by the 2004 presidential race, when the party, desperate to defeat George W. Bush, showed unusual unity in lining up early behind John Kerry. Kerry’s Vietnam heroism, supposedly, made him an effective standard-bearer against a self-described wartime president. But Kerry, like Gore, had personality issues and was reduced by the G.O.P. machine to a vain, haughty and spineless Massachusetts liberal.
When Clinton was president, Democrats weren’t shy about criticizing him and his triangulation. But in the wake of their traumatizing 2000 and 2004 defeats, and the G.O.P.’s boastful talk of a permanent majority, Clinton came to look better than ever – a Democrat with an uncanny knack for actually winning elections.
This set the stage for 2008, with another Clinton waiting in the wings. When Hillary Clinton won her Senate seat in 2000, it understandably prompted talk of a future White House campaign – and nothing she did upon taking office suggested this wasn’t on her mind, too. Still, in her early Senate days, this talk was treated as more of a curiosity, something that would probably be moot if the Democrats could knock off Bush in ’04. But after the ’04 debacle, the Clinton chatter (at least among many Democrats) came with a sudden sense of urgency: This was the only way they could ever win again.
That promise of victory became Hillary Clinton’s campaign message. “I know how to win,” she declared at one of her first official campaign events.
It was a theme she and her supporters touted relentlessly, for more than a year. The Republicans have tried to destroy me and my husband over and over again, she’d say, but we never gave up and we always beat them in the end. It was a message designed to appeal to a wounded party that had watched its two most recent nominees get bloodied beyond recognition by the Big, Bad Republicans.
To millions of Democrats, the message rang true. Even as Hillary fell behind Obama in the delegate count this past February, her supporters maintained with theological certainty that only Hillary would be able to win in the fall, and that Obama would be chewed up and spit out by the G.O.P. machine. When the primary process ended in June, she was still winning states, often by wide margins, and had accumulated about 18 million votes. All spring, her fundamental message had stayed the same: You need the Clinton magic to win in the fall. Millions of Democrats believed they did.
Even when Hillary finally conceded the nomination, Democrats still feared the consequences of a Clinton-less ballot in November. The campaign to force Obama to select Hillary as his running mate was mostly the product of her backers, but other Democrats joined in, too. And when Obama snubbed her for Joe Biden and the new ticket found itself in a dogfight with John McCain and Sarah Palin in early September, you could hear Democrats across the country asking themselves: What have we done?
But things look different now. Just days before the election, Obama is in as good shape as any Democratic nominee at this point in the race since … Bill Clinton. Like Clinton in ’92, he seems poised to break the G.O.P.’s lock with incursions into some very red states and to rack up a robust Electoral College majority.
The Clintons won’t go away, of course. Hillary’s most influential days in the Senate are probably ahead of her, and Bill remains a (relatively) young former president with an international fan base. But their grip on the psyche of the national Democratic Party is over. After next Tuesday, Democrats will still salute their electoral accomplishments in the 1990s. But they’ll be done trying to dream up ways to re-create those days.