Should Obama Face a Challenge in the Democratic Primary?
The Illinois 10th Congressional District Democrats work in Barack Obama’s political heartland, the northern suburbs of Chicago, which so warmly embraced a young state senator’s bid for the US Senate in 2004 and the presidency in 2008. Long before Obama became a national phenomenon, he had liberals swooning in Glenview, Deerfield and Northbrook. But early last month, after President Obama overruled his own Environmental Protection Agency and scuttled anti-smog regulations, the blog of 10th District Dems featured a plaintive post: “Do I still believe his promises? I want to… I really want to.” Even as the grassroots group was spreading the word that “volunteers are needed for Avon, Antioch, Grant, and Lake Villa for President Obama’s campaign,” sincere activists were speculating on its website about whether President Obama is a “monumental fraud.” The frustration with Obama is real and widespread, extending from environmental issues to economics to foreign policy. “I’ve been going door-to-door a lot in the past few weeks” for Democratic candidates, says Sharon Sanders, a member of the group. “We’re only hitting Democrats, and they are so discouraged about everything—as I am.”
So what about a challenge to Obama? Should a progressive take on the president in the rapidly approaching Democratic caucuses and primaries?
“Boy, have I given this some thought,” says Sanders. “I’m fifty-fifty on it. On the one hand, it would wake up Obama and the Democratic voters and perhaps get them out to vote.” On the other hand, she worries about taking steps that could strengthen the hand of conservative forces she fears are hellbent on “destroying any fragment of what’s left of our democracy and taking away all essential government programs.”
In labor temples, lecture halls and library meeting rooms across the country in recent months, I have had hundreds of discussions with folks like Sanders: hard-working, deeply committed grassroots party activists who line up well to the left of a president they see as too quick to compromise on economics, civil liberties and wars. Some prominent progressives have stepped up, endorsing a letter in mid-September arguing that without a primary challenge, “progressive principles past and present [will] be betrayed.” The signers include Ralph Nader, Cornel West, Gore Vidal, Jonathan Kozol, Rabbi Michael Lerner, former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk and Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica. It is not just unmet expectations that lead roughly a third of Democratic voters to tell pollsters Obama should face a primary challenge; it is also a sense that the president cannot energize the Democratic base and win in 2012 unless he is forced to define himself as a dramatically more progressive candidate.
Once upon a time, the sense of malaise and frustration of so many of the party faithful, along with encouragement from prominent activists and ideologues, would have guaranteed a primary challenge to a sitting president. It would have come from a prominent senator, like Estes Kefauver in 1952, Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Edward Kennedy in 1980—or, in the Republican column, from an ideological gadfly like Ronald Reagan in 1976 or Patrick Buchanan in 1992.
But when I ask Susanne Donovan, a Cornell University student activist who has expressed frustration with Obama, whether it might be good for a progressive to challenge him, her instant reply is, “Who?” She’s got a point. Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Dennis Kucinich, progressive stalwarts who have suggested Obama could benefit from intraparty competition, are quick to clarify that they’re not running.
It’s not just lack of courage or ambition that keeps big-name Democrats out of the fray. There are practical reasons that no sitting president, Democratic or Republican, has faced a challenge from a sitting member of Congress or a governor since 1980. Presidential politics have changed dramatically over the past three decades. These days presidents never really stop campaigning after their initial election, and that goes double for Obama. His will be the most well-financed re-election campaign in history, and the resources available for demolishing any primary challenge will be unprecedented. He has full control of the Democratic National Committee, and his aides and allies have worked behind the scenes to “streamline” the nominating process by reducing the role of the superdelegates, organizing the caucuses and the primaries on a schedule favorable to the president and deciding to hold the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, a Southern city in a right-to-work state, rather than in a Northern city with a labor-left base and history. Critics fear it will be “a tediously scripted national convention, deprived of robust exchange and well-wrought policy.”
Then there is the matter of front loading. Eugene McCarthy did not launch his 1968 primary challenge to Lyndon Johnson until late November 1967. By that time this year, Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire will be on the verge of voting; indeed, the first caucuses and primaries could yet be moved to pre-Christmas dates. The dramatically sped-up and concentrated primary calendar leaves little time for slow-to-develop challenges. It is already very late in the 2012 process, and no well-known Democratic official or progressive activist seems to be entertaining a run.
“We don’t even have a Pat Buchanan,” jokes Jeff Cohen, the veteran media critic and adviser to progressive candidates who is convinced that a credible primary challenger could win 30 to 40 percent of the vote in some states. Cohen argues that a primary challenger would not have to win to make a meaningful impact; a strong competitor could force Obama to sharpen his message and give progressives a significant role in defining the party. But for every progressive who argues that Obama’s re-election prospects would be improved by primary prodding from the left, there are cautionary voices like that of James Fallows, who asserts: “As for the primary challenges, what similarity do we notice between Jimmy Carter (challenged by Edward Kennedy in 1980) and George H.W. Bush (challenged by Pat Buchanan in 1992)? What we notice is: they held onto the nomination and went on to lose the general election.”
Obama is not likely to be defeated by a primary challenger. Despite the dip in his national approval ratings, polling suggests he retains relatively solid numbers with Democrats in key states—and among critical voting blocs. African-American voters, 86 percent of whom give the president favorable ratings (58 percent strongly favorable), are definitional players in Southern and a number of Great Lakes states. A ham-handed primary challenge could energize African-American voters—who, as Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry notes, may be inclined to ask why the equally disappointing Bill Clinton did not face a primary challenge in 1996. Such a challenge could also antagonize young people and many white liberals inclined to defend the nation’s first African-American president against what they perceive to be an unfair assault.
The prospect that the Democratic Party could divide against itself in an ugly debate gleefully amplified by right-wing media has little appeal even to Democrats who disdain Obama’s policy drift. But there is almost as much concern that a nuanced challenge from a candidate who appeals to African-American voters, such as Cornel West, would weaken the incumbent the way Ted Kennedy’s 1980 challenge to Carter and Buchanan’s 1992 run against George H.W. Bush are perceived to have undermined those presidents’ re-election.
In fact, the theory that primary challenges invariably lead to November defeats is wrong. In the past fifty years, two of the biggest presidential wins were secured by incumbents who faced meaningful primary competition. In 1964 President Johnson and his “favorite son” stand-ins had to fend off a determined challenge from Alabama Governor George Wallace, who won roughly 30 percent of the vote in two Midwestern primaries and 44 percent in Maryland. In 1972 President Nixon was challenged from the right and the left by Republican Congressmen (Ohio conservative John Ashbrook and California liberal Pete McCloskey) who attracted a combined 30 percent of the vote in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Both Johnson and Nixon would go on to win more than 60 percent of the fall vote.
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