As a rule I have a mixed opinion of columnist Peggy Noonan’s work. While I think she’s a master rhetorician, I frequently find her analysis problematic. In today’s column at the Wall Street Journal she articulates something I’ve been trying to explain about the dangers that a primary challenge would pose for President Obama far better than I’ve been able to when I’ve raised the subject:
Modern presidents are never challenged from their base, always by the people who didn’t love them going in. You’re not supposed to get a serious primary challenge from the people who loved you. But that’s the talk of what may happen with Mr. Obama.
The Democratic Party is stuck. Their problem is not, as some have said, that they don’t have anyone of sufficient stature to challenge the president. Russ Feingold and Howard Dean have said they aren’t interested, but a challenger can always be found, or can emerge. If anything marks this political age, it’s that anyone can emerge.
The Democrats’ problem is that most of them know that the person who would emerge, who would challenge Mr. Obama from the left, would never, could never, win the 2012 general election. He’d lose badly and take the party with him. Democratic professionals know the mood of the country. Challenging Mr. Obama from the left would mean definitely losing the presidency, as opposed to probably losing the presidency.
There is only one Democrat who could possibly challenge Mr. Obama for the nomination successfully and win the general election, and that is Hillary Clinton. Who insists she doesn’t want to.
What are the Democrats to do? If you are stuck with a president, you try to survive either with him or, individually, in spite of him. Some Democrats will try to bring him back. How? Who knows. But that will be a great Democratic drama of 2011: Saving Obama.
The issue isn’t an either-or binary proposition. In the modern electoral history of the presidency a primary challenge has always caused the incumbent to go down in defeat. That doesn’t require a mass flight. It only requires lower turnout, a change at the margins.
When the margin of victory is just a few points, as it has been for many years, a few discouraged voters who decide to stay home rather than vote for an incumbent they opposed in the primary can make the difference between re-election and going home to organize the construction of your presidential library.