Why the "Liberals Can Mount Primary Challenge to Obama" Talk Makes No Sense

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 8 2010 5:33 PM

Why the "Liberals Can Mount Primary Challenge to Obama" Talk Makes No Sense

Beware, liberals! Beware the specter of John Ashbrook. Asyou "murmur" and "bubble" about the

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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in the 2012 Democratic presidential primary, rememberthat there are worse fates than opposing a president and losing. You couldalways oppose a president and lose so badly that people wonder why they tookyou seriously in the first place.

A Google search informs us that "John Ashbrook" gets 73,700hits while "Obama primary challenge" gets 126,000, and because onlyone of these things actually exists it’s worth explaining it. In July 1971,staffers from the American Conservative Union , Human Events , and NationalReview met at William F. Buckley’s town houseto coordinate a conservative break with President Nixon. This was after thepresident cut defense spending and announced a trip to China. That meeting spunoff into anti-Nixon essays, like one from Buckley in the New York Timesmagazine ("how long… before the American right comes to the conclusion that heis not one of us?"), and eventually it spun off into a movement to draftAshbrook, an Ohio congressman, into a primary challenge against Nixon.

"Perhaps this is what the American people want," Ashbrookthundered as he announced his campaign. "Perhaps, even, he is reflectingthe wishes and expressing the judgment of the Republican voters throughout thenation. But I for one do not believe it, and I propose to put the matter to thetest in the good old-fashioned democratic way."

He did; he lost. He got 9.7 percent of the vote in the NewHampshire primary. "The Ashbrook candidacy is not amounting to very much,"wrote Buckley. "What I fear is a dissipation of our strength." The conservativemovement tiptoed gently away from Ashbrook, and Nixon didn’t have to worryabout conservatives for the rest of his re-election campaign.

Oh, sure, they got a few things. Tom Winter, the HumanEvents editor who was at the meetings and helped draft Ashbrook, credited thecampaign with putting a final nail in Nixon’s Family Assistance Program, whichwould have replaced Great Society programs with direct checks. (The plan wasannounced in 1969, so this would have been a very final nail.) It alsoconvinced him that an effort like the fantasy campaign against Barack Obama wasdoomed to fail.

"That won’t work," says Winter. "The Ashbrook campaign waswell worth doing, but it’s almost impossible to challenge a sitting president."

Yes, it is. LBJ passed on re-election after EugeneMcCarthy’s challenge in 1968, but the combination of a drawn-out war and military draft activating liberal voters and a listless president who doesn't want the job won't be repeated in 2012. The one-on-one defeat of a president has nothappened since Chester A. Arthur was felled by James Blaine in 1884. It doesn’tcome close to happening unless the incumbent president is seen by the base asunelectable, if he has completely broken faith with them on policy, and ifthere is an obvious candidate with political support who can take him on. Allof those factors applied to Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Two of those factorsapplied to George W. Bush. One of them, maybe, applies to Barack Obama.

Why say "maybe" when Obama has clearly violated his campaignpromises on tax cuts (no extensions for the rich), immigration reform (a votein 2009), and the environment (where to start)? So far, the anti-Obama murmuris limited to the sort of people who murmur for a living – liberal magazineeditors, progressive activists. There is no visible enthusiasm for it among theDemocrats who actually vote to nominate candidate. Go and look for them.Obama’s approval rating among liberals doesn’t fall below 80 percent in anypoll. A poll testingHillary Clinton against Obama has him leading her by 15 points. Calling upDemocratic party workers in Iowa today, I found nobody who either wanted anObama challenge or could speak to people who did.

So: All of this liberal discussion about challenging BarackObama (it really is limited so far to Robert Kuttner, Michael Lerner, and ahandful of other people) misses the point about how to effectively pressure apolitical party into doing what you want. The least effective way of pressuringthe party is to back a stunt campaign against the president of the UnitedStates. Nothing gets more coverage. Nothing is less winnable. This meansnothing is going to get you more coverage about how you’re not winning .

How do you pressure a political party? You follow theexample of the very successful political movement that has put Barack Obama inthe position where he needs to cut deals that anger liberals. The modernconservative movement did not waste time pitching primary challenges againstGeorge W. Bush in 2004. It spent that time trying to take down liberalRepublicans in local, winnable races. In doing so, groups like the Club forGrowth made it harder and harder for Republicans to break from anti-tax, smallgovernment orthodoxy, even when George W. Bush did so.

"There's no point in just spending money for the sake of feeling good about attacking someone if no chance of winning," says Club for Growth executive director David Keating. "You pick races you can win." Obama in a Democratic primary? "I don't see how he can possibly be beaten."

Liberals actually know how to do this. They’ve done it recently. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s defeat inthe 2006 Democratic primary in Connecticut did not lead to Ned Lamont joiningthe Senate, and so it was covered as a failure. It obviously wasn’t, because itmade it impossible for Democrats to waffle on the Iraq War and trained some ofthe activists who would beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 on that issue. (Lamont wasObama’s chairman in the state, and Obama beat Clinton in the Connecticutprimary.)

If liberals are serious about meeting in a townhousesomewhere and dreaming up an Obama primary challenge, they can do it. They willget media coverage for it. They’ll lose so badly that it’ll discredit thereasons they did it.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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