The Liberal Crisis
The defeat of Russ Feingold in the November 2 election has unexpectedly provided the most uncompromisingly left-wing Democrat in the U.S. Senate with a new job opportunity—that of candidate for the presidency of the United States. Feingold hinted in his concession speech on election night that he might challenge Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries. “It’s on to 2012,” Feingold said, “and it is on to our next adventure.”
The next day, a spokesman said that Feingold had “no interest” in running for the presidency, but such a denial is meaningless. The scale of the Democratic Party’s defeat and the parlous condition of the country’s finances inevitably raise the specter of a challenge to a first-term president from within his own party. Such challenges have been part of the political landscape for the past half-century. Eight presidents since 1960 have run for re-election. Four of them have had to fight off a significant primary opponent whose key message was that the president had betrayed his party’s core principles. In each case, the challenge preceded the president’s eventual ouster in the general election.
In 1968, Eugene McCarthy came at Lyndon Johnson from the anti-war left and, in losing in the New Hampshire primary by a mere seven points, convinced the man who had won the biggest landslide in American history three years earlier that he could not secure a second full term. Ronald Reagan went at Gerald Ford in 1976 in part on the grounds that Ford was capitulating to the Soviet Union; Reagan went on to win several major states, galvanized the Republican Convention far more than its actual nominee, and left Ford to close a 30-point gap in the polls with Jimmy Carter (which Ford almost did).
With stagflation at home and chaos abroad, Edward Kennedy confronted Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Kennedy went on to win 10 primaries, upstage Carter at the Democratic Convention just as Reagan had upstaged Ford, and in general, presage Carter’s doom. Twelve years later, George H. W. Bush began his re-election campaign in the economic doldrums and came under unexpected pressure in New Hampshire from the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, who got a stunning 38 percent. Ross Perot saw this and designed an independent bid against Bush on the single issue of the budget deficit, which Bush had actually taken aggressive measures to confront; Perot’s bid got Bill Clinton elected.1
There is great ideological irony here. McCarthy and Kennedy ran to their presidents’ left at the beginning of an election cycle that concluded with the victory of a hated conservative—Nixon in 1968, Reagan in 1980. Reagan ran to Ford’s right in an election that went to Carter. And by running to Bush’s right, Buchanan helped establish the conditions under which Clinton would achieve victory in 1992. Both Carter and Clinton ran as Southern moderates but began governing as aggressive liberals. Feingold, or any other Democrat who considers a challenge to Barack Obama, will have to contend with the knowledge that the better he does, the more likely it will be that a conservative Republican will occupy the White House come 2013.
Given this history, what conceivable justification can there be for a primary challenge to Obama for an ideologically driven politician who would not wish his worst enemies to achieve power? The only principled justification is, precisely, principle: you do so because you think the president of your party has acted in ways that are especially injurious to the things you believe in most deeply by suborning those beliefs to his political ambitions. Pat Buchanan’s quixotic effort against George H. W. Bush was driven by this; he opposed the Gulf War, had become a Bryanesque economic populist, and wanted to fight for his (repugnant) vision of what the Republican Party ought to be.
In the case of McCarthy and Reagan and Kennedy, something rather more layered was at play. Kennedy’s 1980 bid was clearly opportunistic, so much so that he himself found it literally inexplicable when CBS’s Roger Mudd asked him why he wanted to be president. The plain fact is that he and his pseudo– royal court had seen an opening for him a decade after Chappaquiddick, but they couldn’t close the deal, and in the process did significant damage to the incumbent.2
Reagan certainly did believe that the policy of détente undertaken by Richard Nixon and continued by Ford was a moral and geopolitical abomination. But he also knew that Ford had not been elected to anything other than the Michigan House seat from which Ford had been elevated to the vice presidency only 10 months before Nixon slunk from office. For Ford to skate into the 1976 Republican nomination without having ever received a single vote as part of a presidential ticket seemed anti-democratic; the logic of the American political system dictated a challenge by someone.
It was the logic of the 1960s that dictated a challenge to Lyndon Johnson in 1968 from within his own party—notwithstanding the fact that he had received 61 percent and 486 electoral votes in November 1964 and had ushered in a new era of activist government with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the initiation of Medicare in 1966.
Indeed, one might say that Eugene McCarthy’s entry into the 1968 presidential primaries against Johnson was less a matter of his own choosing than it was a willed manifestation of the anti-war movement, which had turned out hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across the country in 1967. Members of the movement over 21 (then the voting age) were natural Democratic voters, but the policies they were protesting were being enacted by a Democratic administration. Their negative electoral energy had to go somewhere, and it was channeled into McCarthy in New Hampshire. But it did not belong to him; after McCarthy knocked off Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy entered the fray to steal McCarthy’s voters away. After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, secured his party’s nomination— which was, to many on the left, no different from having nominated Johnson again. The Democratic Convention in Chicago at the end of August became the epicenter of a guerrilla war launched by leftists against traditional FDR Democrats (in the persons of Humphrey and Chicago mayor Richard Daley), with rioters setting upon Chicago cops, getting savagely beaten in response, and being placed under arrest by the thousands.
The carnage in the streets of Chicago figured prominently in the explanations for the electoral triumph of Richard Nixon in the 1968 general election. And the enduring memory of the way in which a policy disagreement within the Democratic Party had resulted in blood and panic in Grant Park may have contributed inchoately to Nixon’s own 20-point win in 1972.
It is tempting to look at this brief history and say that primary challenges are purely destructive. But that may overrate them. They may not have altered the political atmosphere against incumbents so much as they reflected a change that had already taken place within the body politic. For there is another reason these primary challenges arise, other than a principle or opportunism—a reason that is inchoate, hard to capture, and hard to define. They happen because the president has begun to look like a loser.
Does Barack Obama now look like a loser? It would be foolish to write Obama’s political epitaph, though it would be even more foolish to assume that his 2008 performance before the national electorate offers much in the way of guidance about how he will fare a second time. A recent president whose election results most closely compare with his is George H. W. Bush, who won 53.4 percent in 1988 (slightly better, in fact, than Obama’s 2008 tally) and had, moreover, a 91 percent approval rating in March 1991. Twenty months later, in November 1992, Bush went on to secure a shockingly low 38 percent of the vote.
Obama is certainly in political peril. In 2008 he won independent voters by 17 points in 2008; on November 2, independents preferred Republicans by eight points, an unprecedented 25-point shift. The percentage of the electorate that called itself Democratic shrank by 9 percent (from 39 percent in 2008 to 36 percent this year). Republicans’ participation grew from 32 percent to 36 percent—proportionately, a 12 percent gain. Let us assume that Obama succeeds in changing the trend line in 2012 by bringing back half the independents his party lost in 2010 and increasing Democratic participation by a percentage point or two over Republicans. If he does so, he will not suffer the kind of defeat his party did in November. But he will still lose.
Obama has acknowledged that he took a “shellacking” in the November 2 election, though in point of fact he had not personally been shellacked. Instead, more than 750 elected Democrats (or positions held by elected Democrats) from the House to the Senate to governors’ mansions to state legislatures were ousted from office in the largest and deepest partisan rout in American history.
It was perhaps more meaningful that Democrats who had had nothing to do with the controversies in Washington—the ones serving in state legislatures— were wiped out at the same time that 66 House seats went from Democratic to Republican control. You have to go back 37 national elections to find a larger number of Republicans in the House. You have to go back 82 years to find as many Republicans in state legislatures.
These numbers are particularly significant because they suggest the end of one of the shortest eras in American political history—a period lasting two elections, in which non-liberal, non-leftist voters in Republican-leaning states flirted with the possibility that the Democratic Party and a charismatic young liberal might have answers to problems the GOP was unable to address effectively. By assigning control of Congress after 2006 and veto-proof dominance of Washington after 2008 to Democrats, voters gave them the perfect opportunity to provide the answers.
And answer they did, with a vengeance. Democrats committed to increases in federal spending that will total, at a minimum, $2 trillion (and almost certainly more) if they come to full fruition—and all that in the wake of financial-bailout commitments of some $900 billion. Obama nationalized two of the Big Three carmakers and took a giant step toward the effective nationalization of the country’s health-care system. And he was stalwart in his insistence (at least until the election results came in) that he would allow the so-called Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 to expire, an effective tax increase of as much as $3 trillion. The answer Democrats provided was that they are activists who govern from the left.
It became common in the days following the election for conservatives and Republicans to say that the GOP should consider itself “on probation.” That is certainly true. But viewing the election as a warning shot to Republicans—which, astonishingly, Obama sought to do in his press conference the day after the voting by saying the election was a “message to Republicans” to “focus on our shared responsibilities and work together”—is wrong. The election was a referendum on left-liberal governance. Voters rejected it, and rejected it with even more of a vengeance than Democrats had shown in undertaking it.
That is why it matters just how deep and thoroughgoing the results were. It wasn’t just that voters wanted to punish Obama and the Washington Democrats because the economy was sour, or because they spent too much, or because they didn’t keep their eye on the ball when they took up health care.
Voters wanted to take governing power away from Democrats at all levels before liberals did more damage.
Presidents in political peril have proved capable of winning over parts of the electorate that had rejected them earlier. Nixon received only 43 percent of the vote in 1968 before going on to score 61 percent in 1972; Clinton got 43 percent in 1992 and 49 percent in 1996. Obama is in a better position than either of them because he needs only the voters who voted for him in 2008 to vote for him again in 2012. That is a tall order because of the way independents deserted the Democrats in November. It is not, however, unthinkable.
But what if the disaffection with Obama comes not only from the right, as was the case in this election, but also from his left? That is where a challenge from Russ Feingold or Howard Dean or someone else will be telling. Ever since Obama took office, leftists have issued complaints against him that, to the non-leftist ear, sound insane.
They claim he has been too moderate, too compromising, too much of a technocrat. They say the $863 billion stimulus was too small by half—an assertion impossible to prove, and pointless in any case, since the stimulus that did become law was as large as the political system in Washington controlled entirely by Democrats could stomach. Liberals were and are angry that Obama gave up the so-called public option on health care, when he had no choice but to do so to win Democratic support to get the bill through the Senate.
In point of fact, Obama has done everything in his power to advance the most unshakably leftist agenda since Johnson’s time, and possibly since the days of Franklin Roosevelt—with remarkable results. He should be celebrated by liberals and the left, not criticized by them, and certainly not abandoned by them. If Obama is indeed threatened by a candidate who comes at him from the left and who gains some traction doing so, that will suggest two things. First, that members of his own base are picking up the scent of a loser from him. And second, that many on the left will prefer to abandon a president they should be hailing as a tough-minded hero rather than confront the stark reality that the American electorate got a good look at what the left truly wants this country to become—and said, with a clarion’s clarity, no.
1 The Democratic share of the national vote in the 1988, 1992, and 1994 elections was around 44 percent each time; this suggests that Perot’s 19 percent in 1992 came almost entirely from the Republican side of the ledger. Walter J. Stone and Ronald B. Rapoport offer a painstaking analysis of this in their seminal 2005 book, Three’s a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence.
2 The specter of a Kennedy-like bid is what might well keep Hillary Clinton from seeking a challenge; that, and the fact that she will have spent most of the Obama presidency working for the man.