The Left-Wing’s Primary Challenge Bluff

December 8th, 2010 at 6:20 pm David Frum | 27 Comments |

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They’re bluffing. Left-wing Democrats are muttering about a primary challenge to President Obama in 2012. Some propose Howard Dean, others Russell Feingold.

The president shouldn’t worry overmuch.

Unlike Kennedy 1980, Reagan 1976, McCarthy 1968, neither Dean nor Feingold will run to win. They would run (if they run at all) to make a point, to draw a little blood, like McCloskey in 1972 or Buchanan in 1992. As 2012 approaches, Democrats will rethink their current warm feelings about Mitt Romney and demote him from The Responsible Republican (TM) to History’s Greatest Monster (TM). The Obama White House will corral wandering Democrats with deftly chosen culture war issues (DADT likely only the first in the series). As voting day approaches, white liberals in Iowa and New Hampshire will get cold feet. So for that matter will Feingold – sorry, that’s Ambassador Feingold – and Dean, both of whom will decide that they’d rather eat lunch in this town again.

Liberals take pride in the high educational attainments of their segment of the American electorate. Bad news: that means their segment can count. And the math says, primary challenge in January = Republican victory in November. They won’t do it, Obama knows they won’t do it, and they know that Obama does.

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27 Comments so far ↓

  • balconesfault

    It’s not really a bluff. It’s more a temper tantrum by some hotheads who have a legitimate beef, but no real sense of political reality.

    And neither Dean nor Feingold would be stupid enough to take them up on it.

    Democrats will rethink their current warm feelings about Mitt Romney and demote him from The Responsible Republican (TM) to History’s Greatest Monster (TM)

    Hmm – I see that Frum is also prone to irrational hyperbole, along with the Firedogs. I’ll agree that most progressives view Romney as the most responsible of the Republican Prez candidates … but that’s damning with faint praise at this stage. And perhaps you could point to where the Dems framed McCain as “History’s Greatest Monster” during the last election?

    Unfortunately for Obama, however, the Dem candidate can’t rely on a smaller number of Pioneers going around and bundling hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions in order to build a warchest. Obama relied on millions and millions of middle class people scraping together $50 or $100 or $200 from their family accounts to pile up the money needed to compete in 2008.

    Wall Street already showed him last fall that they’re PO’d that he forced them to pay TARP back or lose their bonuses. They’re not likely to open their wallets for him in 2012, no matter how much pleading Summers does to his old cohorts.

    One major problem is that Obama can’t practically do anything that promises those millions of middle class voters each a 10x or 100x return on investment for their contributions. The GOP, on the other hand, can deliver on that promise to the contributors who max out for their candidates.

  • armstp

    I think there is a lot more Democratic anger out there regarding this tax bill than people think. I think there is a good chance that it will not pass. Pelosi is not going out of her way to make it happen.

  • anniemargret

    I am disappointed; I could care less about the wealthy keeping their tax cuts. They don’t suffer without them, but Obama did what he had to do. I will support him again in 2012 because he’s the best man for the job.

    Despite the halo surrounding Romney, who compared to the other stars of the GOP, is brighter, he is still a Republican with an identity problem. Is he right wing? Center right? Pro or anti-abortion rights? Will he pretend his RomneyCare doesn’t work? Or does he go with the political wind of the time? McCain has done that, and now he’s history.

    No Republican in the White House in 2012….they’ve got nothing to offer this country.

  • Charles M. Kelly

    I think Mr. Frum has assessed this correctly.

    That said: Obama is seen as weak by many, with much justice. (Put aside the hammering he has suffered from the right. For decades now, being president has meant accepting the reality that you will be pilloried. Truth be told, if a man can’t handle the psychological abuse that comes with the job, he might not be the best guy to deal with something as serious as a war or a Great Recession.)

    If Democrats see the Republicans put up a strong, credible candidate, they might just turn on Obama in hope of keeping the White House. (Though it would play into the hands of those who sincerely believe only the GOP is fit to rule. Those folks can never been converted to sanity any way.)

    Also, there are people who would do almost anything to keep Sarah Palin from even trying to get into the Oval Office—including tossing Obama aside if that was the price of keeping the Oval Office Palin-free.

    So while I agree with Mr. Frum, I would add the caution: at the moment, he appears to have assessed things correctly.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Frum, Balconesfault, CM Kelly: You are all probably correct in most particulars, but you guys are overlooking a pretty important factor here: Howard Dean is an almost unbelievably capable fundraiser. His ’04 fundraising effort pretty much pioneered Obama’s ’08 fundraising success.

    If I were BHO, a well funded Howard Dean would scare the shit out of me. Dean isn’t exactly confrontation shy– especially in free media forums like debates– and I don’t see how Obama could get away from ducking debates with Dean if he’s got a huge pile of cash to prop up his media profile.

  • politicalfan

    Not going to happen., President Obama has actually done a lot regardless of what people say or do not like. The only way that it could is if the D’s lose out of the core values. They may be mad that he didn’t hold out, but they know the votes are not there.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    politicalfan: I hope you’re right, inasmuch that I think Barack Obama has shown a good deal of restraint and realism while trying to guide our country through terrible times. But Howard Dean’s a huge egomaniac, and the fact that he can raise dough as easily as Bristol Palin can down a box of Krispy Kremes is going to be very tempting to all the activists on the far left. A lot of the lefties I know here in Olympia, WA– and these are the “professional leftists ” that Rahm and Gibbs have, with much justification, complained about– are totally thrilled about the prospects of another Dean candidacy.

    I would never vote for Howard Dean– well, unless Palin was the GOP nominee, but hopefully such a general election match-up would have a third, sane option– but, on second thought, I would love to see him run, as he is a complete jackass and extremely entertaining. Whenever I’m feeling blue and need a youtube video to cheer me up, the Howard Dean Iowa Meltdown is more effective than anything, except maybe Dennis Green’s “The Bears are Who We Thought They Were” MNF tantrum. I think a year and a half of that sort of thing would alleviate much of the emotional bleakness of post-recovery America.

  • sinz54

    A primary challenge to Obama from the Left could never succeed, because a disproportionate percentage of Dem Leftists are from minority groups (blacks and Hispanics). And minorities will stick with Obama–The First Black President ™–to the bitter end, if for no other reason than racial solidarity.

    In 1980, Ted Kennedy made a vigorous primary challenge to the incumbent, Jimmy Carter. But Carter had alienated the Congressional Black Caucus with his austerity program; those black Dems then supported Kennedy.

    No such thing can happen with Obama. It’s impossible for Obama to do or say anything that would alienate blacks, because they see him as one of them. (According to the Gallup Poll, black support for Obama is still at an amazing 93% or thereabouts.)

    Want more proof? Check the public opinion polls. Obama’s approval rating among self-described liberals is still a remarkable 80%. Here again, Obama’s natural advantage among minorities is providing him with a comfortable cushion of votes among the Left.

  • sinz54

    anniemargaret: Romney, who compared to the other stars of the GOP, is brighter, he is still a Republican with an identity problem. Is he right wing? Center right? Pro or anti-abortion rights?
    He’s all of the above. :-)

    Remember Saturday Night Live: “It’s a dessert topping AND a floor wax!”

    Interesting contest shaping up: Obama, who believes in things but won’t fight for them, versus Romney, who will fight for things he doesn’t believe in. :-)

  • anniemargret

    sinz: Nothing surprising about racial solidarity…. one can point to Palin’s supporters’, who almost to the one, are white Christian WASPs from rural and small town America. Obama has a much broader appeal past cultural/religious/economic but Palin cannot pull from anything but the far religious right, the GOP’s ‘base.’

    Most people vote for the person that they feel mostly signifies their circumstances or worldviews. But I counter that most blacks are far leftists….

    …musta missed that SNL show!

  • rubbernecker

    If Democrats see the Republicans put up a strong, credible candidate, they might just turn on Obama in hope of keeping the White House.

    Who is this strong, credible candidate that the Republicans have been hiding from us!

  • anniemargret

    anniemargret: mis-written….should have said…most blacks are NOT far leftists!

  • jerseychix

    Obama may loose the far left, who’ve pretty much hated him since he took office and didn’t close GITMO the next day. So what. Am I thrilled with everything he’s done? Nope. Do I think a GOP candidate without the approval of Grover Norquist can win the primary? Nope. Would I ever vote for someone who Grover Norquist likes? Nope.

    OTOH, if the GOP comes out with someone in the center, that can appeal to someone like me AND my much more conservative brother, he’s up a creek. But, I don’t think that person exists. Because it would require ACTUAL conservatism. Like leaving the government out of abortion decisions, and recognizing that treating our earth with respect is a conservative value.

  • armstp

    First, I do not think there is any credible talk by anyone about a primary challenge. I am not sure where Frum got that from other than his Republican buddies or the from the Media.

    Second, let me remind you that Obama remains the most popular national politician in America. The average of his last five polls put him at a 47-48%. His polling numbers have not moved that much at all in the last 18 months, where he has remained in the upper 40s to 50%. His approval among Democrats remains at a close to a record 85%.

    See this trend line. It has been flat and in fact in recent months has been ever so slightly trending up.

    This is remarkable polling performance, as during the last year the Republicans have spent hundreds of millions trashing Obama and it has had absolutely no impact on his popularity and given the high unemployment and general economic environment for his polling numbers to stay fixed is incredible.

    Let me remind you that Obama remains much more popular than both Clinton (41%) and Reagan (41%) at this point in their presidencies.

    There is no other Democrat that is polling remotely close to Obama on the national level and no Republican either.

    Lets compare Obama’s favorability rating to some likely Republican candidiates (and they have the luxury of having to sit there and make no hard decisions).

    Latest polls put favorability rating at:

    Romney: 36%

    Gingrich: 32%

    Huckabee: 42% (I am sure his Jim Neighbors/Mr. Rogers TV show helps, so he will want to keep the TV show as long as possible before he declares his candidacy, so may declare late).

    These low ratings for these likely three Republican candidates suggests that they do not have much beyond the Republican base in support and not many Independents.

    So, given how strongly Obama is sitting in the polls, his continued historic support by Democrats and a very weak relative Republican field, I think the talk of a primary challenge to Obama is BS, if it even exists.

  • armstp


    “And minorities will stick with Obama–The First Black President ™–to the bitter end, if for no other reason than racial solidarity.”

    You could say the same thing for southern middle-to-older whitemen, who will stick to the Republican candidate to the bitter end, if for no other reason than racial solidarity.

  • armstp


    There is no strong new Republican candidate. It is wishful thinking on the right that some white knight is suddenly going to enter the race. Not going to happen. That candidate would have already popped up.

    Candidates will generally have to declare their candidacy by the end of February 2011, given the Iowa Caucaus in February 2012. All the major candidates in the 2008 election had declared their run by Feb. 2008. So time is running out for a new unforseen Republican entrant. In fact, most that will run should have already been testing the waters by now with press interviews, meeting the party establishment, building a team and raising money. I don’t think you will see a Republican primary candidate whose name is not already well known who has not already been out their testing the waters. Likely only Republican candidates are already known: Romney, Huckabee, Gingrich, Palin, Pawlenty, and that is about it. Most Republicans know it will be hard to beat both Romney and Obama, so most of these moderates that are sometimes hoped for by the right (Daniels, Bloomberg, Jindal, Christie, Bush) I believe will sit this one out, as not to lose.

  • jjv

    I agree that Dean and Feingold are just too responsible and Party Men (and easily cowed by race) to go after Obama, but how about Robert Reich? How about a media figure like Buchanan was. MSNBC is chock-a-block with such types. Al Sharpton never sleeps and he can draw media at will. A protest Democrat could become troublesome in the way Gene McCarthy or Buchanan became troublesome. After New Hampshire the Bush forces had reason to worry in South Carolina.

    Finally, I hope that the Republican Congress improves the business/deficit climate enough to ward off a double dip recession but if not, all bets are off in 2012 on all sides.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    armstp, Sinz has a point, there is no way that Dean would ever want to go down as the white elitist ex-Gov. of a NE state telling the first black President not just to get to the back of the bus, but to get off the bus entirely. At most when Nader runs again (he will be what, 92?) he will get a few more votes than he otherwise would have gotten, but as he has been on an downward slope he might be lucky to get 1%

    And there is no way in hell another minority will run against Obama, Sharpton is out there defending Obama to this day.

    The only person who can hurt Obama is Hillary and there is no way in hell she is going to do that.

  • rubbernecker


    You are right. There will be no GOP Superhero to the rescue. None of the likely R candidates have broad appeal in their own party, much less nationally. Of course, it all depends on the economy. If the recovery continues to be sluggish for ordinary Americans the R’s will have a shot despite the shortcomings of their frontrunners. On the other hand, Obama’s approval ratings have remained steady throughout this dismal year, so that’s encouraging for the president’s supporters.

    Obama is not the leader I’d hoped he would be, but I will almost certainly vote for him again in 2012. The Republicans have nothing to offer most Americans.

  • balconesfault

    jjv: how about Robert Reich?

    I think Robert Reich is intelligent enough to know that he’s an advisor, not a President.

    How about a media figure like Buchanan was. MSNBC is chock-a-block with such types.

    Not so much. Olbermann would never run. Rachael Maddow may enter politics someday, but she’d be more likely to try to enter a race she could win, like Al Franken did. Ed Schultz? No way. Lawrence O’Donnell has no delusions of grandeur. Maybe Joe Scarboro? But I doubt he’d run in a Dem primary.

    There isn’t going to be a primary challenge to Obama that’s anything more than a vanity project. And those don’t damage a sitting Prez. His biggest challenge in 2012 won’t be in securing the Democratic nomination with minor effort, because for all the issues progressives have with him it’s hard to see how anyone else would have done a lot better. We want an improved Obama, true to more of his own rhetoric. His biggest challenge will be in getting tens of millions of voters who showed up to vote for him in 2008, but who apparently stayed home last month, motivated to get out to the polls.

    On the GOP side, while I’d usually argue that someone has to be running hard now to be taken seriously … the GOP is incredibly unstable right now. There’s no real respect for experience and knowledge and credentials, so particularly if the early primaries don’t create any conclusive victories, it might only take a matter of a few weeks for someone to go from being off the radar to being everyone’s obvious choice. Someone like Jim DeMint might be able to get traction in an incredibly short period of time and put the game away before anyone knows what’s happening.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    Robert Reich is also like 5 feet tall and looks like a hobbit, his standing next to Obama is not going to look good to anyone, why would he put himself through that for no shot at winning anything?

    Democrats are lucky Rubio is new to the Senate, in 6 years he can be formidable.

  • Carney

    Frum said, ” Democrats will rethink their current warm feelings about Mitt Romney and demote him from The Responsible Republican (TM) to History’s Greatest Monster (TM).”

    Boy, isn’t that the truth. McCain is still shocked at the entirely predictable turning on him that the media did in 2008.

  • SkepticalIdealist

    Don’t be so sure David. This isn’t a one-off thing. He’s kicked the dog more times than I can count. Off the top of my head: trading the public option for positive HCR ads from the industry, not getting the Volcker rule, DADT, the DOMA beastiality defense, freezing federal wages, supporting off-shore drilling just in time for the BP spill, the massive troop surge in Afghanistan, the ill-conceived deficit commission, and just the blatant disrespect of calling liberals retards who want to eliminate the pentagon (Granted, the last two weren’t Obama personally, but they were two people who have the president’s ear and he has reflected more or less the exact same view on several occassions).

    He actually needs liberals more than ever right now because it’s liberal activists that are going to be his ground troops come November. It’s liberal activists that are going to help fill his war chest with donations. It’s liberal activists that are going to take the time to talk to people and try to explain to their barely political family members why Obama is a good president and why they should bother to take an hour to go vote. At least those are all the things they WOULD be if he didn’t treat them with such utter contempt. Dan Savage has reported extensively on how angry the gay community is and how that has completely killed any motivation they might have to work toward Democratic victories. There are also plenty of articles on how people like George Soros are starting to look elsewhere, but that’s actually not as important as the dire situation at the macro level. He needs a national message, but he has none because he has compromised on all his principles. Furthermore, if he waits until the last minute to try to create his own counter-narrative to the Republicans it’s going to fail miserably for two reasons. 1) He has accepted it for the last 2 years and 2) He will have no credibility and 3) It takes a long time and a lot of repetition for a national message to resonate. Republicans were on the same message about socialism, government takeovers, and job-killing tax increases since day one. They are still on it today and they will still be on it come November 2012. Obama can’t hold a message for more than two rallies before he hangs it up and accepts the Republican narrative.

    Lastly, it’s just incredibly bad politics. I think a Republican caller on C-SPAN put it best. He said that he was extremely happy with the tax deal and he can’t wait until they elect a Republican president so he can get an even better one. Today’s Republican can’t be won over. As David Brooks said, you can give them 80-20, 90-10, or even 99-1 and they will still say no. That’s the only thing Obama is ever going to hear when he asks them for their vote. If he throws liberals under the bus to go after Republicans and so-called independents then he shouldn’t be surprised when the latter two don’t vote for him and the former can’t because they’re roadkill. Independents are not won over through weakness. They are won over by the selling of a message. It worked in 08 with the mantra of change, and it worked again in 2010 with the Republican message in conjunction with the adverse economic conditions. The Tea Party/Republican coalition is the antithesis of compromise yet they won over independents overwhelmingly in the midterms. If compromise was a winning strategy then why did Democrats get shellacked?

  • SkepticalIdealist

    bah, i edited the third reason in afterwards, and now it’s too late to change my post to say “three reasons”.

  • pnumi2

    “Though it would play into the hands of those who sincerely believe only the GOP is fit to rule.”

    There’s a special place in hell for those who believe, sincerely or other wise, that only the GOP is fit to rule.

    I guess they will still be able to vote absentee.

  • balconesfault

    Democrats are lucky Rubio is new to the Senate, in 6 years he can be formidable.

    Except that in 6 years, how many pieces of legislation supported by the general public will Rubio be on record as having helped filibuster?

  • politicalfan

    “But Howard Dean’s a huge egomaniac, and the fact that he can raise dough as easily as Bristol Palin can down a box of Krispy Kremes is going to be very tempting to all the activists on the far left.”

    I don’t think it will happen. The chance of an Independent (jumping in) is more likely. Bloomberg (maybe he doesn’t want Palin to run as an Indep).

    BTW, I know you know that I am not a fan of Sarah’s politics but I am obligated to defend her daughter. I wish BP would not respond to her critics and believe there is something to be said about political correctness, but I think she is a young woman growing up in the spotlight. It is hard enough being a young woman but to be constantly criticized, that is rough. I hope she will not continue to seek out a celebrity status, people are harsh and she will have to know what she is signing up to face. I also like donuts but would rather down a pizza-a very good one!