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.