Bai on an Obama Primary

The New York Times’ Matt Bai has long displayed an intense dislike of the American Left, particularly the online progressive movement. His column at the Times, “Political Times,” is an opinion column masked to look like straight news analysis. Almost everything he writes is filtered through his own normative prism. As such it’s no surprise that today’s piece, “Murmurs of Primary Challenger to Obama,” is laden with distortions. The most obvious is the notion that there are serious talks to run a primary challenger against President Obama. While there is discontent on the left and a small number of progressive writers have floated the idea, it’s hard to describe this as something that is moving towards reality, at least worthy of reporting by one of the Times top political, ahem, reporters.

Things get more interesting when Bai mentions the key issues which he sees liberals as raising when it comes to primarying Obama. He writes:

All of this would have seemed unthinkable in 2008, when Mr. Obama’s red-white-and-blue visage seemed omnipresent on campuses and along city streets, a symbol to many of liberalism reborn. That, of course, was before the abandonment of “card-check” legislation for unions and of the so-called public option in health care, the escalation in Afghanistan and the formation of the deficit-reduction commission.

Note Bai’s issue choice and tone. First, there hasn’t been a single labor union which has cited the lack of movement on the Employee Free Choice Act – or any other issue – as grounds for challenging the President. Yet Bai leads with labor reform, couched in scare quotes, as the first issue liberals are citing as grounds for a primary. Of the three published pieces Bai cites calling for a primary, neither Michael Lerner, nor Robert Kuttner, nor Clarence Jones mention labor reform broadly or Employee Free Choice specifically as reasons to primary the President.

Second, note the “so-called” part of his reference to the public option. It wasn’t so-called. That’s what it was. Again, though, while there is disappointment widely and outright anger in some places, I don’t see the particular presence or absence of the public option from health care reform legislation as a driving force in discussions on the left of a primary challenge.

No doubt the zeitgeist in liberal spheres is one of disappointment and anger. It’s also evident that the President is angry with the progressive left for raising their criticisms, as yesterday’s White House press conference clearly demonstrated. There’s been more tension between the administration and the base than I would hope for, but Bai doesn’t do anyone a service by elevating what are at best tangential policy differences in the quiet conversations about a Democratic primary. Of course, that’s Bai’s point. He’s seeking to exaggerate the volume of these conversations and frame them in such a way as to make it really simple for Village elites to punch the left.

I don’t doubt that more progressives will float the idea of primarying the President. It’s a natural part of the conversation when a sitting President is headed to a re-election campaign. But there isn’t a single organization who has moved towards a primary. There isn’t a single Democratic politician who has expressed interest or willingness in running, let alone a draft movement directed at any individual to run against Obama from the left. Maybe these things will change in the future. For now, there is obviously dissatisfaction but nothing near the level of formative campaigning that Bai implies, making me think the sole purpose of Bai’s piece is to be a vehicle for his intense dislike of the left.

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