The Case for a Primary Challenge Against Obama

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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?

In a provocative essay, James Poulos lays out another possible future. It's deeply counterintuitive. He argues that the existing tea party can appeal to the whole political spectrum if its leaders and rank-and-file have the will to make it happen:

Democrats have not been so disillusioned with a sitting president of their party since Robert F. Kennedy ran in 1968 to unseat Lyndon Johnson. Liberal confidence in the most basic principles of Democratic rule have been shaken to the core by Barack Obama's intensification of Bush-era policies that even divide the right. The left cannot field a challenge to what increasingly strikes good-faith liberals as the rule of a corporatist police state. The Green Party is a husk. The radicals are a rump. Outside the right, there is now no viable political alternative to Obamaism -- the greatest partisan disappointment in generations.

But until Republicans make some fundamental changes to their party platform, the left is prepared to accept from the Democratic Party many generations of abuse and depression. This is why liberal elites are deep into a crash program to hardwire the public mind with their caricature of Tea Partiers as a virulent, violent fringe peddling moral hatred and social suffering. At the present moment, it sounds farfetched to say that only the Tea Party can address this concern in a way that can attract liberal voters to Republican candidates. But does it sound any less farfetched to say that establishment Republicanism can gain the support of any liberals worthy of the name?

His theory has this going for it: Tea partiers and disaffected liberals have in common a mistrust of the political establishment, a plausible critique of centrists, a desire to hold candidates they elect to their promises, and legitimate grievances with widespread appeal. As a student of partisan media, however, it is unthinkable to me that they'd join forces to elect even a reformed version of a Tea Party Republican. In a better world, ideological movements wouldn't rely on vilifying adversaries as the people who are "destroying America" while advancing their own causes.

But our world is one where there is not only a psychological temptation to do so, but huge financial incentives for people like Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, Andrew Breitbart, Mark Levin and Michael Moore to stoke the pathology. If the other side is as malicious in their intentions as these entertainers say, it would be folly for the non-establishment right and left to join forces.

Thus failed "centrists" keep hanging around.

What I'd like to see, apart from everything else, is a return to strong primary challenges against sitting presidents. It's easy to understand why they don't happen. But hard to argue that we wouldn't be better off if President Bush had been forced to worry a bit more about fiscal hawks, and President Obama was worried a bit more about anti-corporatists and the anti-war, civil libertarian left.


Image credit: Reuters
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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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