The volume on the ongoing discussion about whether President Obama should face a primary challenge for the 2012 Democratic nomination is constantly being adjusted. When the president compromises on basic premises of progressivism, when he talks of putting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts “on the table,” and sometimes when he simply seems unfocused and politically inept, the volume goes up. When the president stands strong, however, when he outlines plans for making the rich pay their fair share, when he promotes infrastructure and investment in he face of Republican intransigence, sometimes when he simply seems to “get” that there is a point where compromise becomes capitulation, the talk dies down.
After the president drew some lines in the sand last Monday, with a speech that laid out the case for genuine shared sacrifice by the wealthy and that seemed to reject the most extreme cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the “Primary Obama” volume dialed downward. As Michael Moore said on MSNBC the other day: “It doesn’t take much” to renew the “hope”—or, at least, the partisan fidelity—that made Obama the most politically potent Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
But if the “Primary Obama” volume is turned down for the moment, the knob is still within hands reach. And there are more than a few Democrats who are only one “Super Committee” bargain away from spinning it toward “10.”
Now, some of the talkers have begun to walk the walk. They’re outlining a plan to run a slate of six primary "challengers" to the president, with each focusing on issues of ideological concern. The point of this initiative is not so much to displace the president as it is to move Obama and the party toward the left — an in so doing to provide the themes and the energy to excite the Democratic base and draw new voters to the polls in 2012.
The steadiest proponent of a primary strategy has been consumer activist Ralph Nader. The former Green Party and independent presidential candidate was always encouraged to work within the Democratic Party. Now, he’s doing so, not as an active candidate but as a candidate recruiter.
“Without debates by challengers inside the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries, the liberal/majoritarian agenda will be muted and ignored,” says Nader. “The one-man Democratic primaries will be dull, repetitive, and draining of both voter enthusiasm and real bright lines between the two parties that excite voters.”
Nader is urging progressives to sign a call for antiwar, anticorporate Democrats to mount primary and caucus campaigns to challenge Obama and the politics of compromise.
Nader is not alone.
“We need to put strong democratic pressure on President Obama in the name of poor and working people” says Dr. Cornel West, the author of Race Matters, who now teaches at Princeton University. “His administration has tilted too much toward Wall Street, we need policies that empower Main Street.”
“It’s time for the White House to get into the trench with organized labor and lend a hand. We know what we need, and we don’t need another campaign speech,” adds United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union political director Chris Townsend. “The absence of discussion or debate about the failed strategies of this administration only emboldens the corporate onslaught.”
West and Townsend are among the signers of the call for primary and caucus challengers.
There is something very old and very new about what Nader and his allies are up to here. They are proposing to get Obama’s attention (and that of the media and, potentially, the broader electorate) using a number of different candidates in different states—following the old “favorite son” or “favorite daughter” model that governor’s and senator used to lock up convention delegates from their states and influence platforms and presidential picks. At the same time, they are talking about linking these state-based challenges to form a national slate—with the express agenda of prodding Obama and “reintroducing a progressive agenda back into the political discussion during the 2012 election season.”
In addition to exploding what would otherwise be a “tediously-scripted convention” of the Democratic Party—an entirely commendable pursuit—the endorsers of the endeavor argue that their slate will assure that “the liberal/majoritarian agenda” will be respected—and ideally embraced—by the president and the party.
The usual arguments are being voiced against the project—it’ll divert resources rom the eventual struggle with Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, it’ll weaken and divide Democrats, it’ll fail and make Obama even less likely to listen to the left, it’ll succeed and identify Democrats as the party of the people and thus make it harder for Obama and other DC Democrats to collect checks from hedge-fund managers.
Reasonable progressives will disagree about whether Obama failings are sufficient to merit a primary challenge, about the threat such a challenge might pose to a party that is not in a strong position at this point and about the politically viability of the “slate” approach. And even some of those who have entertained the notion that Obama could use a primary push go to a default position of disdain for Nader, who a good many Democrats will never forgive for mounting Green and independent challenges in the closely competitive presidential election years of 2000 and 2004.
But, this time, Nader really is doing what his liberal critics once demanded of him—working within the Democratic Party—and he is doing so rather creatively. That’s attracted an solid list of co-endorsers for the letter. Among the signers, in addition to West and Townsend, are Gore Vidal, Jonathan Kozol, Rabbi Michael Lerner, former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk, former Federal Communications Commission member Nicholas Johnson, former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham and dozens of others.
Here’s the letter and the list of signers:
Dear Colleague: We write to you in light of recent deteriorating events in Washington, D.C. Misguided negotiations by the Obama Administration over increasing the debt ceiling willingly put our nation’s vital social services on the chopping block while Bush-era tax cuts remain untouched. Clearly the situation has reached crisis proportions. In response, an innovative plan has been developed to reintroduce a progressive agenda back into the political discussion during the 2012 election season.
Consider for a moment two very different scenarios for the 2012 Democratic presidential primaries.
The First scenario, President Obama advances without contest to a unanimous nomination. There is no recognizable Democratic challenger, no meaningful debate on key progressive issues or past broken promises, just a seamless, self-contained operation on its way to raising one billion dollars in campaign funds.
This scenario is what most observers expect. Mr. Obama will face neither opposition nor debate. He will have no need to clarify or defend his own polices or address the promises, kept and unkept, of his 2008 campaign. The president will not have to explain to his supporters why he directly escalated the war in Afghanistan and broadened America’s covert war in Pakistan, why he chose to engage in a military intervention in Libya, or why he has maintained the Bush Administration’s national security apparatus that allows for the suspension and abuse of constitutionally protected civil liberties—dismissing Congress all the way.
In an uncontested Democratic primary, President Obama will never have to justify his decision to bail out Wall Street’s most profitable firms while failing to push for effective prosecution of the criminal behavior that triggered the recession, or his failure to push for real financial reform. He will not have to defend his decision to extend the Bush era tax cuts nor justify his acquiescence to Republican extortion during the debt ceiling negotiations. He will not have to answer questions on how his Administration completely failed to protect homeowner’s losing their homes to predatory banks, or even mention the word “poverty,” as he failed to do in his most recent State of the Union Address, even as more and more Americas sink into financial despair.
He will never be challenged to fulfill his pledge to actively pursue a Labor-supported card check, or his promise to increase the federal minimum wage or why he took single payer off the table after he said he believes in it. The American labor movement, facing an unprecedented onslaught by the Right will not have the opportunity to voice its concerns and rally around a supportive candidate.
The president will not be pressed to answer how he spent four years in office without addressing the ongoing destabilization of our climate or advocating a coherent and ecologically sound energy policy including defending his position on nuclear power and so called clean coal. Nor will he discuss regulatory agency deficiencies in enforcing corporate law and order in an era marked by a corporate crime wave having devastating economic consequences onworkers and taxpayers and their savings and pensions. There will be no opportunity for the Hispanic and other relevant communities to speak out on immigration reform even as the Republicans continue to use it as a weapon of political demagoguery.
Add your own concerns, disappointments, and frustrated hopes to this list of what will surely be left off the table during an express-lane primary. The valid disagreements within the Democratic Party, let alone the goals of progressives, will be completely overlooked. The media will gleefully cover the media circus that is sure to be the Republican primaries, magnifying every minor gaffe and carefully cataloguing every iteration and argument of the radical right.
The cameras will cover the Democratic side only for orchestrated events, the whiff of scandal, and to offer commentary on how the campaign is positioning itself for the general election.
The summation of this process will be a tediously scripted National Convention, deprived of robust exchange and well-wrought policy. And here the danger is clear: not only will progressive principles past and present be betrayed but large sections of voters will feel bored with and alienated from the democratic candidate. This would not serve the president’s campaign, our goals, or the nation’s needs.
Thankfully, there is another option. This second scenario would allow for robust and exciting discussion and debate during the primary season while posing little risk to the president other than to encourage him take more progressive stands. It would also accomplish the critical task of energizing the Progressive base to turn out on Election Day.
Imagine: A slate of six candidates announces its decision to run in the Democratic primaries. Each of the candidates is recognizable, articulate, and a person of acknowledged achievement. These contenders would each represent a field in which Obama has never clearly staked a progressive claim or where he has drifted toward the corporatist right. These fields would include: labor, poverty, military and foreign policy, health insurance and care, the environment, financial regulation, civil and political rights/empowerment, and consumer protection.
Without primary challengers, President Obama will never have to seriously articulate and defend his beliefs to his own party. Given the dangers our nation faces, that option is unacceptable. The slate is the best method for challenging the president for a number of 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.
The slate, if announced, will receive free legal advice and adequate contributions for all prudent expenses in moving about the country. The paperwork is far simpler than what confronts ballot-access-blocked third party and independent candidates. For the slate will be composed of registered Democrats campaigning inside the Party Primaries.
This opportunity to revive and restore the progressive infrastructure of the Democratic Party must not be missed. A slate of Democratic candidates challenging the president’s substance and record is an historic opportunity. 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.
This letter is sent to several dozen accomplished persons known to identify with the Democratic Party voting line for a variety of reasons. We ask that you join us in becoming an official endorsee of the slate proposal. All endorsements are made as individuals and organizational or institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only. Your endorsement will be a vital signal of support and will help in compiling the strongest slate of candidates possible when we send out the letter to the candidate list, yet to be finalized.
Second, can you suggest accomplished people to contact who may be interested in joining the slate as a candidate in one of the following fields: labor, poverty, military and foreign policy, health insurance and care, the environment, financial regulation, civil and political rights/empowerment, and consumer protection. This can be yourself if you feel it would be appropriate.
Endorsements will be accepted on a rolling basis. All submissions of endorsement or additional questions and comments for the can be directed to Colin O’Neil at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-599-3474. We appreciate your speedy reply.
Partial List of Endorsees*
* James Abourezk
Former U.S. Senator, South Dakota
* Gar Alperovitz
Professor University of Maryland
Co-Founder Democracy Collaborative
* Norman Birnbaum
Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University Law Center
* Dr. Brent Blackwelder
President Emeritus, Friends of the Earth
* Peter Coyote
Actor, Author and Director
* Charles Derber
Professor, Boston College
* Ronnie Dugger
Founder, Alliance for Democracy
* Rebecca and James Goodman
* Randy Hayes
Director, Foundation Earth Rainforest Action Network Founder
* Chris Hedges
Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist of the New York Times and Author
* Ellen H. Brown
Lawyer and Author of Web of Debt
* Edgar Stuart Cahn
Professor of Law, University of the District of Columbia
Co-founder Legal Services for the Poor
* Pat Choate
1996 Reform Party Vice President Candidate
* Ronnie Cummins
Organic Consumers Association
* John Fullerton
President, Capital Institute
* Hazel Henderson,
Author Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy President, Ethical Markets Media, LLC.
* Alan F. Kay
Author, Spot the Spin and Locating Consensus for Democracy
* Harry Kelber
The Labor Educator
* Andrew Kimbrell
Executive Director, Center for Food Safety & International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA)
* Jonathan Kozol
Educator, Author of Savage Inequalities
* Lewis Lapham
Former Editor, Harper’s Magazine
* Rabbi Michael Lerner
Editor, Tikkun Magazine Chair, Network of Spiritual Progressives
* Carol Miller
Community Activist, New Mexico
* E. Ethelbert Miller
Board Chair Institute for Policy Studies
* Ralph Nader
* Michael Parenti
* Jean Houston
Psychologist, Anthropologist and Author of The Possible Human and The Possible Society
* Nicholas Johnson
Former Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission
Former Administrator, Federal Maritime Commission
* Leland Lehrman
Partner, Fund Balance
* Samuel Metz, MD
Mad As Hell Doctors, founding member
Physicians for a National Health Plan, member of Portland chapter
* John Passacantando
Former Executive Director, Greenpeace USA
* Vijay Prashad
Author and Professor, Trinity College
* Marcus Raskin
* Andy Shallal
“Democracy’s Restauranteur” and Owner of Bus Boys & Poets
* Nomi Prins
Author and former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs
* Michelle Shocked
* David Swanson
Author, War is a Lie
* Chris Townsend
Political Action Director, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE)
* Gore Vidal
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Chair, The Shalom Center
* Dr. Quentin Young
National Coordinator, Physicians for a National Health Program
* All endorsements are in alphabetical order are made as individuals, organizational/institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only.