The Case for a Primary Challenge Against Obama

Presidents will continue to break their promises so long as they're assured of their party's nomination come re-election time

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Ask a typical tea partier when his discontent with the political establishment began. Often as not he'll point to the Bush Administration. The list of grievances is long: the profligate spending, the new entitlement for prescription drugs, the Harriet Miers nomination, the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Most tea partiers now think compassionate conservatism itself was ill-conceived.

So where were all the protest rallies back when Bush was president? It's a question tea party critics love to ask. The implication is that the protest movement is motivated by partisanship and antagonism to Obama more than principle. In fact, discontent on the right during the Bush years was genuine. Tongues were held for reasons including these: a desire to support the president in the war on terror, misguided partisan loyalty, a conservative movement that acted as unprincipled apologists and attack dog enforcers for the president, and perhaps more than anything else, a dearth of options. Circa 2003, when Medicare Part D was enacted, a primary challenge against Bush was unthinkable. What was an upset conservative to do, vote for John Kerry?

By their lights, he'd have been worse.

Liberals should understand that predicament. It's exactly the one in which they now find themselves. President Obama won't face a serious primary challenge prior to Election 2012, but that isn't because he has governed as the left would've wanted. He is trying to keep American troops in Iraq beyond his own withdrawal deadline. His executive power claims are every bit as bad, and sometimes more extreme, than the excesses the left blasted when Bush was responsible for them. The prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open. Warantless surveillance on innocent Americans continues. Whistleblowers are in greater legal jeopardy than they were. The economy is terrible. Health-care reform was more corporatist than progressives would've preferred. We're now waging an illegal war in Libya that'll cost over a billion dollars, even as we prepare deep cuts to social welfare programs. Despite promises to the contrary, the FBI is still raiding medical marijuana dispensaries in jurisdictions where they're legal under state law. Promised advances in government transparency haven't materialized.

The left would be justified in lashing out, given the Grand-Canyon-sized chasm that separates the rhetoric of candidate Obama from the behavior of President Obama. By and large, however, they've kept quiet about the abuses and unlawful behavior of the man who occupies the White House, with a few notable exceptions, compared to their volume and passion during his predecessor's tenure. That's partly because they've focused their attacks on the tea party, and politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. The truth of the matter is that even if a conservative like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the soft spoken advocate of a truce on social issues, won the nomination, the vast majority of liberals would support President Obama's reelection anyway.

It is their feeling that they've got nowhere else to go.

Is there any way out of this cycle, whereby every president is virulently hated by the opposition and proceeds to betray his ideological allies, who submit for lack of an alternative? Are we condemned to a political establishment that has failed all of us? If things proceed as before, perhaps Obama will win re-election, continue to betray his base and the ideals he articulated in 2008, and sow the seeds for a left-leaning tea party equivalent. There is, however, one flaw in that plan: isn't the rhetoric of candidate Obama mostly what those people want to hear from a champion?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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