Weekly Standard: A Dem Challenge Obama? Get Real

Aug 4, 2011

Jay Cost is a staff writer for The Weekly Standard.

Froma Harrop wrote a column this week, arguing that Democrats should primary Obama:

"Ed Rendell, do you have plans for 2012? Hillary Clinton? If you, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, or you, the secretary of state, are free next year and wouldn't mind, would you please launch a primary challenge against President Obama?"

Won't happen. Period. No serious Democratic official would dare challenge Obama for the nomination. Here's why.

As usual, let's start with the broad, historical perspective. In the age when party conventions actually selected nominees, some incumbent presidents wanted to be nominated but were unsuccessful (e.g. Franklin Pierce in 1856 and Chester Arthur in 1884). However, no incumbent in the postreform era has lost the nomination, regardless of his standing with the broader electorate. The example to keep in mind here is the 1980 Democratic primary battle. There was nobody of higher stature in the Democratic party by that point than Ted Kennedy, and no Democratic president in the postwar era had as little standing with his fellow Democrats than Jimmy Carter. And yet, Carter trounced the Massachusetts senator.

If Ted Kennedy, the most popular of all Democratic challengers, could fail to defeat Jimmy Carter, the weakest of all Democratic presidents, then nobody can defeat Obama, who has five decisive advantages for the 2012 primaries.

First, he has money. He will raise substantially more than any would-be challenger. More money means a stronger organization, which is incredibly important for the front-loaded primary calendar. Jimmy Carter in 1976 could start slow and build momentum, but that is much more difficult now because of how early Super Tuesday is and how many primaries are on it. A candidate who lacks strong, positive name recognition and/or money to build state-by-state infrastructures will have an impossible time of competing.

Second, he has the White House. Ted Kennedy had an enormous lead over Jimmy Carter through all of 1979, but ultimately he carried just 35 percent of the primary vote in 1980. A big reason why was Carter's excellent use of the Oval Office. Not only was Carter careful to dole out patronage in ways that helped him in the battle against Kennedy, but he also employed a masterful "Rose Garden Strategy," in which he made a point every day to seem presidential. It worked like a charm.

Third, he has the Democratic client groups. While many liberals – like Harrop – are disappointed with Obama's performance, the president has done an incredible job of appeasing the sundry client groups that make up the Democratic party. Public sector labor unions cheered the stimulus (and the NEA has already endorsed him for reelection!). The UAW loved the auto bailout, and the whole AFL-CIO appreciated his going soft on "Cadillac" health care plans. Environmental groups appreciate his efforts at cap and trade, as well as his tough new CAFE standards. Feminists appreciate his defeat of the Stupak amendment. Gay rights groups appreciate the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and are obviously hopeful that he'll get behind nationwide gay marriage when the time is right. Expect all of them to line up behind Obama. While it is possible for a Democrat to win the nomination without these groups (e.g. Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992), it is extremely difficult to win when the party groups have lined up behind another candidate (e.g. Gary Hart losing to Walter Mondale in 1984).

Fourth, he has African Americans. The president's support with this group is rock solid, and with the Southern white vote now firmly in the Republican camp, Obama will easily dominate the Southern Democratic primaries.

Fifth, he has the party establishment. No sane Democrat could possibly believe that replacing Obama with another nominee will improve the party's prospects in November 2012. And Democratic officeholders who want to continue holding office know full well: The worse the party does at the top of the ticket, the worse it will do farther down (even state legislative elections are correlated with the presidential vote!). Self-interest, in other words, will make sure almost all of elected Democratic officialdom will get behind Obama. This means that Obama will control the superdelegates.

All of these advantages add up to the following conclusion: Barring some major scandal that seriously tarnishes him, President Obama will be the Democratic nominee in 2012.

Thus, no Democrat who actually wishes to occupy the Oval Office would dare challenge him. Any actual challenger who emerges will be on a quest to garner national attention or to raise some issue of personal importance. Such candidates (e.g. Pat Buchanan in 1992, Gary Bauer in 2000, and Al Sharpton in 2004) rarely amount to much more than historical footnotes.

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