Twelve years ago, then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama was treading water in the 2008 race for the White House. The burst of enthusiasm that greeted the announcement of his candidacy in February 2007 had already begun to fade as he remained mired in second place behind the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.
Then, in the fall of 2007, he came to the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, and delivered a fiery, hopeful speech predicated on the idea of genuine and generational political change. It turned his candidacy around and propelled him toward winning the state’s caucus in January and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Obama resurgence has become part of Democratic folklore. On Friday night, as Iowa Democrats gathered again at the now renamed Iowa Liberty and Justice Dinner, 12 Democratic presidential candidates tried to recreate the magic that spurred Obama to the White House.
While few politicians could equal the former president’s unique political skills, the two candidates who did the most to help themselves were South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and US Senator Kamala Harris of California.
Buttigieg has the current momentum in Iowa. Recent polls have him hitting high double digits in the state as he has begun to plunge his millions in campaign dollars into a robust organizing effort.
His pre-event rally — one of the more enjoyable features of the night as campaign supporters gathered en masse and then marched through the streets of Des Moine — was one of the biggest, with an estimated 2,300 “Pete fans” converging in a cold rainstorm to cheer him on. Inside the arena, the yellow and blue colors of Buttigieg’s backers were omnipresent. They were the largest candidate contingent and by far the loudest.
Buttigieg’s speech was emblematic of the campaign he is running — and the former candidate he is emulating. He directly referenced Obama by noting that the first time he came to Iowa, it was “as a volunteer, to knock on doors for a presidential candidate with a funny name.” But like Obama, Buttigieg was long on hope, and shorter on specifics.
Buttigieg’s campaign is not lacking in policy specifics. His campaign website is filled to the brim with detailed policy proposals.
But on the stump, he is decidedly platitudinous. On Friday he cast himself as not only the one person who can take on President Trump, but also as the polar opposite of the president. “The purpose of the presidency,” said Buttigieg in one of his best lines of the night, “is not the glorification of the president, but the unification of the American people.”
Still the lack of substance and the reliance on what occasionally feels like empty rhetoric is hard to ignore. Aspiration is great, but at times it was hard not to hark back to the line that Walter Mondale used in 1984 against Gary Hart to great effect — “Where’s the beef?” One thing is clear about Buttigieg — he’s running on the Obama playbook.
For Kamala Harris, the day did not start off well. News reports revealed that with money drying up and her poll numbers in the low single-digits, she shut down three of her four field offices in New Hampshire and fired all her field organizers in the state. Her campaign desperately needed a shot in the arm — and it got one. Harris gave one of the best speeches of the night, with a performance that was passionate, inspiring, and showed off her unique political skills.
Harris’s greatest strength is her ability to dramatize policy issues and tell a story that resonates. On Friday, she spoke of the mother with her child “in a parking lot of a hospital, afraid to walk through the sliding glass doors to get into the emergency room” because she knew if she did, she could be out of pocket a $4,000 deductible. She talked of the father with two kids paying more in taxes than the richest 400 people in America.
“Health care justice,” “economic justice,” “education justice,” and “reproductive justice” are on the ballot, declared Harris. It’s the kind of populist appeal that has the potential to resonate with voters.
In fairness, most of the candidates acquitted themselves well. Though he spoke late in the evening, after much of the crowd had gone home, US Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey delivered an impassioned, preacher-like oration that used the rhetorical refrain of “I see you, I love you” to convey an optimistic message of political change.
Though a bit more subdued, US Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts stuck to her populist us vs. them appeal while taking shots at rival candidates “running some consultant-driven campaign with some vague ideas that are designed not to offend anyone.” Earlier in the day, Warren finally unveiled her long-awaited Medicare for All proposal. Though it did not include a tax increase for middle class Americans, it was largely met with pans from moderate and centrist Democrats. Rather than trying to pacify her critics, Warren threw a stiff drink in their eyes. “Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you they can make change without a fight is not going to win that fight,” she defiantly argued. “And anyone who comes on this stage and tells you to dream small and give up early is not going to lead our party to victory.”
Speaking of Joe Biden, he was . . . fine. There were no glaring misstatements or embarrassing moments, but a speech that started off well ended up meandered — as is Biden’s wont. A stump speech from the former vice president is the Pu Pu Platter of campaign events – everything is on the table: guns, climate change, health care, foreign policy, etc. Biden’s desire to talk is unquenchable, but what’s lacking is the kind of narrative and message that gives voters a real sense of why Biden is running for president.
It remains to be seen whether what happened Friday night will have the same effect on one of the Democratic candidates that it did for Obama twelve years ago. But with three months until Iowa voters gather to caucus – and the Democratic race still feeling remarkably fluid – there is still a lot that can happen between now and then, and a host of talented candidates with the potential to upend the race.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.