Matt Stoller in Salon:
Obama has ruined the Democratic Party.
So why isn’t there a legitimate primary challenger to Obama to make this case? Forty years ago, primaries were instituted in the Democratic Party as a response to party insiders having too much influence over nominations. These reforms were implemented before the prevalence of money in politics was as extreme as it is now. At this point, primary challenges are so expensive that a serious 2012 campaign would ironically require support of party insiders for viability. The party, inflexible as it was in 1968, is perhaps even more rigid today. As a result, no candidate has stepped up to challenge Obama in a primary, even though 32 percent of Democratic voters want one.
This is an institutional crisis for Democrats. The groups that fund and organize the party — an uneasy alliance of financiers, conservative technology interests, the telecommunications industry, healthcare industries, labor unions, feminists, elite foundations, African-American church networks, academic elites, liberals at groups like MoveOn, the ACLU and the blogosphere — are frustrated, but not one of them has broken from the pack. In remaining silent, they give their assent to the right-wing policy framework that first George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama, cemented in place. It will be nearly impossible to dislodge such a framework without starting within the Democratic Party itself.
Stoller’s emphasis on the role party insiders can play in taking action here is insightful. There is no need for acquiescence. Stoller suggests first that party leaders run as favored son candidates, sparking energy and discussion in different geographies that opens the door for a real discussion about the direction the base wants the party to go in and who we want to lead us there:
Harkin could run as a “favorite son” of Iowa, and encourage people in the caucuses to send a message to the party and to Obama by choosing him. Other candidates could then emerge in early primary and caucus states, as a way of repudiating Obama’s leadership. Candidates wouldn’t have to pretend to be running for president or be presidential quality; they could simply stand in as favorite sons or daughters of their own geographic area. This would immediately fire up a highly aggressive and needed debate about the direction of the Democratic Party and the country at large. It would build a new set of leaders, and elevate others who would like to distance themselves from the Obama policy agenda.
In a few months, we’ll know better if Obama still looks like a loser next year. If he does, that does not mean the Democratic Party must follow him down the path to oblivion.
Political parties need to be flexible enough to allow for new ideas to come into the process, or else third parties or civil disorder are inevitable. All it would take to provide this flexibility are well-known Democratic elders who understand that rank and file Democrats deserve a choice, and a few political insiders who realize that they can increase their own power by encouraging a robust debate. I don’t think this will happen. But just imagine if it did.
I think this is exactly right. I’m really not afraid of the consequences of a primary. I don’t think something that 32% of Democratic voters want is fringe – it’s a legitimate idea, and one has achieved that legitimacy without a single party insider, media figure, or liberal leader advocating for it. If a primary challenger were able to emerge and beat Obama from the left, that person would offer voters a real choice of vision for how to right the economy and rebuild the middle class. If primary challengers emerged, but failed to knock Obama off of the top of the ticket, then at least the base had a choice in opposition and made it with their vote.
One element Stoller doesn’t address is that Obama’s poll numbers are weak now. There’s a very real chance that no only will he have taken the Democratic Party far to the right, but that he’s not even going to win reelection, ensuring four to eight years of Republican rule (which may well be similar to what we have, but without the whimsy). But there is recent history of the Democratic Party forcing an incumbent to not run for reelection due to poor polling: the 2010 Senate race in Connecticut, where poor polling lead the administration and party leadership to not only encourage Chris Dodd to not run again, but were recruiting an alternative candidate while Dodd was still running. Dodd did what was probably best for the party and stepped down in a timely fashion and Democrats were able to hold the seat. While there may or may not emerge primary challengers to Obama, there also may need to be a discussion not about his candidacy on ideological grounds, but his candidacy on electability grounds. I don’t expect that there will be this degree of critical introspection within the administration, but if there ways, very interesting things could happen that might not otherwise be possible.