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What’s the Point?

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Unless you’re completely new to the blog, you know that I disagree with the two key premises underlying Matt Stoller’s call for a primary challenge against Obama. First, I think it’s silly to see the Obama administration as an extension of the Bush administration.  And second, I don’t agree with the Beltway pundit assumption that electoral outcomes derive primarily from presidential tactics. (To state the obvious, nothing Obama could have done could have stopped the Democrats from getting slaughtered in the 2010 midterms, and talking about the Democrats being “destroyed” is just as foolish as assuming that the Republican coalition was permanently fractured because McCain lost Indiana and North Carolina.)

But let’s leave that aside, and assume that a third term of Bush would have involved a larger stimulus, the most significant health care reform in four decades, EPA regulations of carbon emissions, two liberal Supreme Court appointments, the repeal of DADT, a refusal to defend DOMA, the aggressive prosecutions of people who block access to reproductive health clinics, etc. etc. etc. And let’s also assume that against all precedent another Democratic candidate would have a much better chance of winning in 2012. Would a primary challenge to Obama make any sense?

Of course not. First, there’s no plausible scenario under which it would be produce another candidate. (Favorite son, seriously? Tom Harkin as your opening progressive standard-bearer?  Needs more brokered convention.) Second, assuming the point isn’t the inherently futile task of actually winning, the track record of primary challenges to advance progressive change is…not good. Anybody remember the Democratic Party shifting to the left and become more electorally powerful after 1968 and 1980? Me neither. And as a bonus, an Obama loss in 2012 would be blamed on the hippies and their primary challenge.  Third, the downsides of the intraparty conflicts are downplayed. I’m particularly amazed at Stoller’s suggestion that “African-American church networks” could be on board against a primary challenge to the first African-American president despite the fact that his record has been more progressive than that of his two Democratic successors (let alone the Republican a primary challenge would if anything make more likely.)  Sure.  In reality, a primary challenge to Obama would be a similar coalition to Nader ’00 — i.e. running the gamut from disaffected white academics to white college students.

So what, exactly, is the basis for thinking that a primary challenge would accomplish anything?

When taking state candidates into account, the 1894 midterm elections were comparable to the 2010 wipeout; Cleveland was disliked so ardently that party leaders pushed him out of running for reelection. Instead the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, who introduced many populist themes into the party and began the ideological transformation that would culminate with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

Let’s leave aside the specious Cleveland/Obama comparison and consider the strategy.  OK, so following the analogy, if the primary challenge “works” according to plan we would get upwards of four decades of Rick Perrys, interrupted in the middle by a Democrat who makes Obama look like Olof Palme, and maybe one Republican warmonger who’s slightly less awful on domestic issues.  And then in 36 years we’ll finally win with a president whose campaign has strikingly little in common with the candidate who won the primary challenge. I’d sure hate to see the downside of that self-refuting plan.

The primary challenge, in other words, is basically the lefty equivalent to Americans Elect Radical Centrist Unity — a useless non-answer to the wrong question.

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