A Primary Challenge For Obama?
Even though it will likely be unsuccessful, a primary challenge against President Obama could end up harming him enough to hand Republicans the White House in 2012.
With the left in open revolt over what they see as President Obama’s betrayal in his agreement with Senate Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts, talk has inevitably turned to the question of whether the President might face a primary challenge in 2012:
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s compromise with Republicans on extending tax cuts for the wealthy, which his self-described progressive critics see as a profound betrayal, is bound to intensify a debate that has been bubbling up on liberal blogs and e-mail lists in recent weeks — whether or not the president who embodied “hope and change” in 2008 should face a primary challenge in 2012.
The idea seems to have little momentum for now, not least because there isn’t an obvious candidate, and because such a challenge would seem to have about as much chance of success as, say, a reality show about David Hasselhoff. That a primary is being openly discussed, though, reflects how fully Mr. Obama’s relationship with his party’s liberal activists has ruptured and the considerable confusion on the left over what to do about it.
Just last weekend, three liberal writers made the case for taking on Mr. Obama in 2012. Michael Lerner, longtime editor of Tikkun magazine, argued in The Washington Post that a primary represented a “real way to save the Obama presidency,” by forcing Mr. Obama to move leftward. Robert Kuttner, co-founder of The American Prospect and one of the party’s most scathing populist voices, issued a similar call on The Huffington Post, suggesting Iowa as the ideal incubator.
On the same site, Clarence B. Jones, a one-time confidant of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., suggested that liberals should break with Mr. Obama now, just as Dr. King and others did with Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. “It is not easy to consider challenging the first African-American to be elected president of the United States,” Mr. Jones wrote. “But, regrettably, I believe the time has come to do this.”
Meanwhile, in Iowa, a group known as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, originally founded to aid Democratic Congressional candidates in 2010, has started broadcasting an advertisement that shows Mr. Obama, in 2008, promising to reverse the tax cuts for the most affluent Americans. The group isn’t advocating a primary challenge just yet — but then, the choice of Iowa as a market seems intended to send a pretty clear warning to the White House.
“On issue after issue, when the public is on his side, this president just refuses to fight,” says Adam Green, the group’s co-founder. “At this point, the strategy is to shame him into fighting
Of course, the fact that Obama hasn’t pleased the progressive wing of the Democratic Party isn’t entirely surprising. He was elected in 2008 by a coalition that was far broader and, while he may have campaigned on issues that progressives supported, anyone with a modicum of political sense realizes that he wasn’t going to be able to fulfill all their dreams in one term, or even in two. Health care reform lacked a public option not because Barack Obama consciously threw progressives under the bus, but because a bill with a public option was never going to make its way through Congress. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal has taken so long because Republicans in the Senate have been able to use parliamentary procedures to block it. Barack Obama agreed to an extension of all the Bush tax cuts because, as I noted earlier this week, the Democrats were playing with a very bad hand from the beginning while Republicans held all the cards. Progressives attacking Obama for any of this seems to me to be the same kind of idiotic circular firing squad mentality that we saw from many on the right during the midterms. It’s dumb, and it doesn’t actually accomplish much in the end except, maybe, giving people the sense that they’ve won some moral, albeit Pyrrhic, victory.
I doubt that the left is going to take my advice, though, so let’s assume for a moment that there’s some support on the left in 2012 for a primary challenge against Obama. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate candidate to make such a challenge, as Stephen Green notes today:
If Obama gets primaried, who will be his challenger? Someone from the center, a moderate? Unlikely. Challengers typically come from the disillusioned base (Eugene McCarthy, Ronald Reagan, Teddy Kennedy) or the wacky extreme (Pat Buchanan). So the idea of Hillary rising from Obama’s ashes to take him on seems pretty silly.
The challenger must be someone from the Super Lefty Left. To defeat the master, the challenger must be able to release Obama’s grip on the African American vote — and no such person exists. Put simply: Obama will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee in 2012.
But is there someone strong enough inflict that mortal wound? That person would also have to be deluded enough (or simply upset enough) to make a run at the master? Not yet, there isn’t, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be.
There are plenty of names one could toss out there that might fit this bill. Howard Dean, Russ Feingold, even soon-to-be-former Congressman Alan Grayson, who would arguably fit the definition of being a Pat Buchahan-like candidate on the left. All of them have support among progressives, but it’s fairly apparent that none of them would ever be able to come as close to defeating Obama as Ted Kennedy came in his challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1976 1980, and even that was unsuccessful.
In modern times, of course, primary or nomination challenges to incumbent Presidents have rarely been successful. The last time it happened was in 1884 when Chester Alan Arthur was denied the Republican nomination in favor of James G. Blaine. More recently, though, such challenges have manged to cause lasting damages even when they weren’t successful. Lyndon Johnson faced such vehement challenges from the left over the Vietnam War in 1968 that he decided not to run for re-election, Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Cater proved to be the beginning of the end of Cater’s Presidency, and Pat Buchanan’s challenge to George H.W. Bush in 1992, which included a surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, weakened Bush significantly heading into that year’s General Election campaign. Something similar could happen to Obama in 2012, especially if the economy has not recovered or if he continues down his current road of doing everything he can to anger progressives. A challenge from the left may not matter in the end, or it could be the final blow for a President who by then may have taken four long years of blows.
It’s going to be fun to watch.
Update: Amidst all this talk about challenging the President from within his own party, it’s worth it to keep this chart in mind:
Until that chart starts to change significantly, speculation about a 2012 primary challenge is just that, speculation.