Why Obama needs a primary challenge
By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.
There is talk in the air of a Democratic challenge to Obama. Since the Tea Party won the battle of the debt ceiling, it has been solid bad news for the president, and his party is wondering whether he is capable – or even genuinely wants – a second term. It is all very well being the world’s coolest guy, but, when you are leader of a party losing rock solid safe seats and alienating the very independent voters who decide who lives in the White House, you may be leaving it a bit late to turn the tide. In the latest teasing McClatchy-Maris poll, Obama is both facing defeat — Americans say they will vote against him by 49 percent to 36, with 52 percent to 38 predicting he will lose — but he would beat every GOP candidate currently on offer.
No sooner had James Carville shouted “Panic!” about the state of drift in the West Wing, and demanded that “a lot” of heads roll, than Al Gore’s nemesis, Ralph Nader, announced he was championing a Democratic primary challenge to Obama from half a dozen candidates, though Nader is not even a registered Democrat. According to the Washington Times, an unlikely bellwether of liberal thinking, “More than 45 Democrats are supporting the move, and the candidates will be experts in fields ranging from poverty to the military.”
Among the mavericks named to lead this progressive revolt are the Princeton professor who starred in The Matrix Reloaded movie, Cornel West, the Zen Buddhist priest and actor Peter Coyote, the singer of Anchorage, Michelle Shocked, and the Democrats’ answer to William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal. Asked whether he would be a stalking horse, the usually immodest kamikaze presidential wannabe Dennis Kucinich said he would decline the chance to stand himself, but said, “I think he should [face a Democratic challenger]. It would make him a better president.”
It may be tricky to find a suitable candidate, let alone a raft of them, to take on Obama. Those who challenge incumbents, such as Ted Kennedy against Jimmy Carter and Pat Buchanan against George H. W. Bush, end up as popular as a ringing cell phone in a Renée Fleming aria at the Met. No one with serious ambitions to succeed Obama, in victory or defeat, would risk the opprobrium that daring to strike the first blow brings, even when, as Bloomberg reports, one in three Democrats say they would welcome a contest.
But would a Democratic primary race, as Kucinich suggests, make Obama a better president? Quite likely. To regain his lost popularity, Obama must first shore up his base. Primaries would shift the national conversation from Republican debate territory, where each candidate takes it in turn to out-Hayek the others, to Obama’s home terrain: jobs and the economy; the economy and jobs.
Democrats feel the president has not been passionate enough about jobs, nor angry enough at those content to let the economy drift for the next 12 months, with all the damage that would do to employment and businesses big and small, rather than do a deal. It is hard to remember now how Obama last time round fired up parts of the Democratic constituency that traditionally don’t even register to vote. Perhaps a contest would revive his old pugilistic persona.
A progressive challenge would also serve to show how far to the right the president is from Messrs. Nader, West, Coyote, Shocked and Vidal, which is no bad thing when trying to convince wavering independents that he is not smuggling European-style social democracy through the back door. It is one of the puzzles facing those with a passing knowledge of political theory that in the public mind Obama is simultaneously a foot-dragging centrist and a wild-eyed socialist. Defeating in debate a delegation from the lunatic left might help voters more accurately place him on the political spectrum.
This might offend the Democratic fringe, but where are they going to go? As Bruce Bairnsfather’s World War One cartoon of two infantrymen in a rain-sodden trench put it, “If you knows of a better ’ole, go to it.” Obama is still the best president they’ve got and if they are thinking about voting against Obama to prove an ideological point, they will have embraced the uncompromising logic of the Tea Party: better lose than schmooze. Nader’s role as chief cheerleader suggests that this is exactly what he has in mind.
A Democratic primary race is wholly unnecessary. It would be an indulgence, a distraction, a waste of time and money. Though it would not be pretty, it would be hugely entertaining. It would certainly not lead to the replacement of Obama as the Democratic candidate. But it would radically change the terms of the ossified political conversation and bring the spotlight back on the president’s vision of putting every American back to work and urgently mending our broken economy.