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.
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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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So it’s not that primary challenges are always problematic for presidents and their parties. But there is evidence that they are damaging to weak presidents and embattled parties. President Obama, with approval ratings dipping below 40 percent, looks weak, and the Democratic Party is still reeling from the hits it took in the GOP wave of 2010. It may well be that Obama’s perceived vulnerability is the greatest impediment to the push for a primary challenge. Lauren Beth Gash, a former Illinois legislator and 10th District Democrat who opposes such a move, says she heard a lot of talk about the idea earlier this year. But lately, she suggests, “some of the loudest critics of the president are now the ones who are saying, Look, we can’t do anything that would elect Rick Perry or Mitt Romney.”
Nader and his fellow primary advocates push back hard against that concern, arguing in their letter, “Certainly, President Obama will not be pleased to face a list of primary challengers, but the comfort of the incumbent is far less important than the vitality and strength of his party’s Progressive ideas and ideals. President Obama should emerge from the primary a stronger candidate as a result.” The bitterest Nader critics—who have neither forgotten nor forgiven his Green and Independent runs for president in 2000 and 2004—will give the consumer activist and his allies no ground; but their strategy for challenging Obama is designed to press him to embrace progressive ideals rather than to displace the president. To that end, they propose a sort of lefty favorite-son strategy, running not one challenger in the primaries but many, with different candidates competing in different states as a dissenting “slate.” In their Invitation to Challenge Obama in the Democratic Primaries, the endorsers of the call argue that the slate is the best way to challenge the president, for several reasons:
§ The slate can indicate that its intention is not to defeat the president (a credible assertion given their number of voting columns) but to rigorously debate his policy stands.
§ The slate will collectively give voice to the fundamental principles and agendas that represent the soul of the Democratic Party, which has increasingly been deeply tarnished by corporate influence.
§ The slate will force Mr. Obama to pay attention to many more issues affecting many more Americans. He will be compelled to develop powerful, organic, and fresh language as opposed to stale poll-driven “themes.”
§ The slate will exercise a pull on Obama toward his liberal/progressive base (in the face of the countervailing pressure from “centrists” and corporatists) and leave that base with a feeling of positive empowerment.
§ The slate will excite the Democratic Party faithful and essential small-scale donors, who (despite the assertions of cable punditry) are essentially liberal and progressive.
§ A slate that is serious, experienced, and well-versed in policy will display a sobering contrast with the alarmingly weak, hysterical, and untested field taking shape on the right.
§ The slate will command more media attention for the Democratic primaries and the positive progressive discussions within the party as opposed to what will certainly be an increasingly extremist display on the right.
§ The slate makes it more difficult for party professionals to induce challengers to drop out of the race and more difficult for Mr. Obama to refuse or sidestep debates in early primaries.
There’s some wishful thinking on that list. It is probably true that if the project comes together as imagined it will compel Obama to develop “fresh language” to counter the threat, but the notion that the president’s hyper-controlling team would agree to a debate with a half-dozen critics is a stretch. And then there is the question of whether multiple candidates addressing different issues could develop a message coherent enough to excite the Democratic faithful. John Stauber, founder of the Center for Media and Democracy and a frequent ally of many of the letter signers, dismisses the slate project as “a wonky idea” that won’t attract the interest or engagement needed to shake Obama or the process.
History favors Stauber’s point of view. The idea of positioning a primary slate against a disappointing president has been thought of before. In 1967 critics of the Vietnam War talked about challenging Johnson with favorite-son peace candidates, such as George McGovern in South Dakota, Gaylord Nelson in Wisconsin and Eugene McCarthy in Minnesota. As McCarthy’s campaign took shape, however, the slate talk faded. It was so much easier to focus energy and attention on one prominent challenger.
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With no McCarthy or Kennedy on the horizon today, the slate project may advance. But its backers might consider another “candidate” named “Uncommitted.” Peace activists in Iowa have been organizing to attend that state’s caucuses and vote not for Obama but for uncommitted delegates who would go to the Democratic convention and push the party in an antiwar direction. It’s worth noting that Iowa Democrats have a long tradition of choosing uncommitted delegates—in 1972 and ‘76, “Uncommitted” beat the party’s leading contenders. If the point is to press Obama on the issues and to send the president and his advisers a message, the uncommitted route has appeal; it is more issue-focused and can be organized without having to contend with the question of whether a particular challenger is sufficiently “presidential.”
Ultimately, however, the challenge of challenging Obama will come down to something more than uncommitted votes in Iowa, a slate of candidates or a very late-starting entry by a high-profile figure like Cornel West. It will come down to a simple question: Do Democratic voters want to fight to define the party and its presidential nominee as a genuine champion of progressive values, or are they so alarmed by the prospect of a Rick Perry presidency—in combination with a Republican House and Senate—that they just won’t go there? The mood shifts, depending on circumstances. Obama’s populist September speeches about taxing the rich and defending Social Security turned down the volume on talk of a primary challenge. But a misguided compromise with the Congressional “supercommittee” on deficit reduction could turn it right back up. “It is like a dial—a very sensitive dial,” says Lauren Beth Gash in Illinois. “But as we get closer to the election, I think Democrats are becoming less inclined to spin it. That doesn’t mean they aren’t frustrated with the president. But they’re realistic about the threat from the Republicans, and they’re worried about expending energies on an internal fight when there are important races where progressives are running that need attention.”
It may well be that those important races will provide a focus for progressives who just can’t get excited about Obama. Elizabeth Warren’s challenge to Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown has developed into a national phenomenon. And there are plenty of other down-ballot races that excite progressives: the campaigns to re-elect Senator Bernie Sanders in Vermont and Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio, the runs of Congresswomen Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii for open Senate seats, writer Norman Solomon’s bid for a California Congressional seat and Ann McLane Kuster’s Congressional race in New Hampshire.
But presidential politics remains a draw, not just for a punditocracy that pays little attention to other races but for activists who worry that a failure to define the Democratic Party at the highest level will harm the rest of the ticket. Of course it’s vital to focus on down-ballot progressives, they say; but just as there are risks in mounting primary challenges at the presidential level, there are risks in avoiding them. “Robust debate on the crucial issues facing our nation, including global environmental devastation, should characterize all races for national public office, and the Democratic presidential primaries are no exception,” says Brent Blackwelder, president emeritus of Friends of the Earth, a primary proponent. “The public needs to hear whether a second-term Obama will be like the first-term Obama, or perhaps more like the 2008 presidential candidate Obama, or something else altogether.”
Blackwelder is right about the potential for primaries to give Obama definition. But he’s not running at this point. Nor is Cornel West. The slate has yet to take shape. And the clock is ticking, fast. The discussion about challenging Obama is widespread and reasonably vibrant. But the challenge itself remains ill-defined and oddly ephemeral. With the prospect that filing deadlines for the first primaries could arrive in a matter of weeks, if there is to be a credible challenge it must take shape in short order, with a clear message and, more likely than not, a clearly identified, high-profile messenger. Failing that, Barack Obama will proceed to the Democratic nomination on his own terms, frustrating as they may be.