The Danger of a Primary Challenge

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.

4 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I’m not sure how you can be certain of the causation string here. Maybe, it’s because some of these Presidents were before my time, but it seems that Ford and Carter had troubled Presidencies that broadcast the strong likelihood that they may not be re-elected and this encouraged the primary challenge. Had there been no primary challenged, it still seems that Ford and Carter would have lost. How could one prove otherwise?

  • PD Shaw Link

    I agree w/Noonan that Hillary would be the one, but I think it’s not entirely about the political spectrum, it’s that she would quickly assemble an organization like Reagan and Kennedy could. Dean and Feingold strike me as closer to Kucinich — national celebrities without the machinery to make a credible challenge, regardless of ideology.

    Hillary of course would have to stage a walk-off-the-stage fight with the administration to be a credible challenge to the administration she is part of.

  • I think the Wikileaks leaks have ended Ms. Clinton’s presidential aspirations to the extent that she still has any.

  • If Barack Bush is the nominee, some liberals like myself will vote Green. Many more will simply stay home out of a sense of futility. That will take place under any circumstances in which Barack Bush is on the Democratic ticket. The lack of a primary challenger won’t change it.

    The only hope for high liberal and Democratic base turnout in 2012 is to put an actual Democrat on the top of the ticket.

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