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Monday, July 25, 2011

Guest Blog: Thoughts On a 2012 Primary Challenge to President Obama

EdMerta120 This is a guest blog by Ed Merta, a first year law student at the University of New Mexico with an interest in environmental and natural resources law.

Senator Bernie Sanders has called for a primary challenger against President Obama in 2012. Is this a good idea?

Answers to that question typically take clear, either/or stands, one way or the other. But in reality, there are complicated calculations on both sides. It's important to be clear and pragmatic in assessing both possible responses -- yes or no -- to Senator Sanders' call.

If someone were to run against Obama in the primaries, political strategists for such a person would try to calculate whether the outcome would be a strong showing -- i.e. win one or more primaries, rather than simply garner a sliver of protest votes in each contest. If someone is going to do something as drastic as mount a serious primary challenge to a sitting president, a hardened politico would say you might as well do it right.

Possible Challengers
Potential candidates with a realistic chance to make a strong primary showing against Obama might include:

  • Former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold
  • Current Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown
  • AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka
  • Current Oregon Representative Peter Defazio
  • Current Minnesota Senator Al Franken

These are safe, conventional choices, with at least some national recognition and "I have paid my dues" cred. They might conceivably generate sympathy from at least some state and local Democratic party officials with crucial influence in the nominating process.

Unfortunately, the connections and credibility of the above candidates make them unlikely to run for president. Challenging the massive, entrenched power of the corporate-funded national party leadership could well mean career suicide for anyone daring the attempt.

That means the most likely recruits for a primary challenge to Obama would be outsiders, unknowns, or people otherwise having less to lose. Potential examples of such candidates include:

  • Van Jones
  • Bernie Sanders (not currently a registered Democrat)
  • Mike Gravel
  • Cynthia McKinney
  • Dennis Kucinich

Such candidates face very long odds of actually winning. For us grass roots advocates, that means supporting such a candidate is potentially an immense waste of time and energy better spent elsewhere. 

Our Dilemma
Grass roots progressive Democrats face a truly horrifying dilemma, which can be summed up in two basic observations.

1) Any action that undermines Obama in 2012 -- including a primary challenge -- increases the odds of a Republican president and Congress taking power in January 2013. Such a government would be the most extremist and destructive in American history, with terrifying consequences for the entire world.

2) Barack Obama -- for whatever reason -- is willfully, systematically undermining progressive values and policies that Democrats have defended for decades. The national Democratic party, on the whole, faces steady pressure to support the President in that effort.

These two facts have critical implications. First, progressives disillusioned with Obama should not minimize the very real risks of challenging the President, because that action could bring the genuinely devastating outcome of GOP control in Washington. Second, die-hard supporters of President Obama should face the reality that his actions show him to be fundamentally hostile to progressive social and economic reform as understood by the grass roots Democratic base. That's the simplest and  most logical conclusion when facing a Democratic president so anxious to slash Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. 

So we have a dilemma -- two conflicting considerations, not easily reconciled, pulling us in seemingly opposite directions. Both answers seem fundamentally flawed. We can withdraw support for Obama or give him that support and hope, against all available evidence, for the best. What should we do? 

If two options seem unworkable, the answer most likely lies in a third option. Not a third party, clearly. At least not yet. The political game in America is currently rigged against such efforts, making them futile. We don't need another Ralph Nader.

Third Option: A Reform Movement
But we need something, and we have compelling models for a third option in the experience of the United States and other countries. These models show how advocates for social justice have dealt with indifferent or hostile political institutions (like the Obama-led national Democratic party and the extremist GOP). In multiple instances, reform movements facing such obstacles have arisen to lobby for effective change. They did so not by emphasizing elections alone but by providing some other sort of immediate benefit in the everyday lives of ordinary people. The resulting grass roots action effectively pressured dysfunctional political systems to change, over the long term.

Here are some examples of this process at work.

1) The U.S. civil rights movement, 1954-1965. It offered African-Americans an immediate action they could take in their everyday lives to provide dignity and hope, albeit at great risk: participating in non-violent civil disobedience against unjust laws. The subsequent mass movement produced, in the end, a more progressive national Democratic party.

2) The U.S. labor movement, 1877 to 1935. Workers suffering brutal exploitation by U.S. corporations responded with strikes and mutual self-help, such as community strike funds. These actions salvaged a measure of dignity and hope in daily life, and in the long run successfully moved the Democratic party to a pro-labor stance. 

3) Pro-democracy movements in Eastern Europe (1970s and 80s), South Africa (1960s to 1980s), and the Middle East (today, still in progress, results yet to be determined). Ordinary people learned to assert their rights and find emotional support in immediate, everyday protests, outside the dysfunctional political system. Such actions, whether taking to the street or hosting a neighborhood organizing meeting, collectively generated large-scale, long-term pressure for political change. 

All of these movements were risky, difficult, and slow to take full effect. But they might offer our best hope for a way forward in the United States of the 2010s and 2020s. They are compatible with pragmatic, partisan political action. We can support Barack Obama as the only realistic bulwark against an extremist Republican regime. But we can at the same time form local, grass roots initiatives to provide immediate benefits and hope, as labor and civil rights networks did in our past. Their twenty first century successors can work, in the long run, to place constructive pressure on the Democratic party establishment.

Our Prospects
This course is uncertain in its prospects for success. But our prospects without it are unacceptable no matter what happens. A loss for Obama in 2012 would bring on the nightmare of a Christian right, Social Darwinist, Tea Party federal government. A 2012 Obama victory, on the other hand, will bring more of what we're seeing now -- a Democratic president bent on destroying vital progressive achievements like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

The irony is that Obama's crusade to gut these programs will make a 2012 Republican victory far more likely. His brand of fiscal austerity will further cripple the daily living standards of average voters, by slashing social programs for millions already facing poverty and unemployment. History shows that such economic desperation leads voters to punish an incumbent President, rightly or not. 

Our country, then, is likely heading toward a crisis greater than any of us ever imagined. In facing it, progressives need to imagine options beyond the simple either-or choice of Obama or anti-Obama. There has to be another way. 

As Bob Dylan once said: let us not speak falsely now, for the hour is getting late.

This is a guest blog by Ed Merta. He can be reached at

To submit a piece for consideration as a guest blog, contact me by clicking on the Email Me link at the upper left-hand corner of the page.

July 25, 2011 at 07:15 AM in 2012 Presidential Race, Democratic Party, Guest Blogger, Obama Administration, Progressivism | Permalink


The list of potentials is horrible. Just horrible. We have the president and need to stand behind him.

The Republican candidate will have to use the far right as their base and I think Americans are tired of the polarized politics of the recent past.

Posted by: Preciliano Martin | Jul 25, 2011 7:33:48 AM

"A 2012 Obama victory, on the other hand, will bring more of what we're seeing now -- a Democratic president bent on destroying vital progressive achievements like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security."

RIDICULOUS. The author is not creditable making such ridiculous claims. Makes me question his motives.

Posted by: Preciliano Martin | Jul 25, 2011 8:04:09 AM

Precilliano-Haven't you noticed Obama pushing for terrible cuts in Medicare, Medicare and Social Security these past weeks? In fact he has talked about "cutting entitlements" since the beginning.

I think Americans are tired of being abused by the leaders of both political parties. They all seem dedicated to cutting services we need, education, health care etc. and refusing to see that we need a serious jobs program ASAP.

We are seeing the results of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United-huge amounts of money coming into the election process from big corporations and banking/finance. We need to battle that with a new movement like this post suggests.

Posted by: Will | Jul 25, 2011 8:54:16 AM

This is the clearest explanation of our choices that I've seen yet. It is depressing but true. Do we have the luxury of working slowly on building a movement? How will people survive in the meantime?

Posted by: EJ | Jul 25, 2011 9:28:42 AM

I disagree that it would be a waste of time to support a candidate with not much chance of winning. At least our points would be out there in play and Obama would have to answer to a member of the progressive wing. He would feel the heat.

If he doesn't want his campaign to be undermined he should wake up and start being a Democrat.

Posted by: Pct Chair | Jul 25, 2011 9:41:55 AM

Many Dems are going to do what I do. Not vote for Obama, but vote for the rest of the Democratic field.
We need to primary the senators that vote with the radical right.
We need to primary Obama so that the left has a voice at the national level. The primary challenger may lose but, I would be willing to vote for Obama after a strong and lively challenge to the left. As it stands, only the right and radical right's values and issues are being represented in this nation's mass conversation. We need to primary the president from the left. We need to primary the president from the left even with loss as a certainty for that strong challenge.
BTW, it is by far not just the big 3 on which Obama has taken the wrong side. The list goes on.
Wars and Continuing of Bush Era Foreign Policy
Medical Marijuana
Women's Reproductive Rights
Reluctantly and embarrassingly being dragged toward LTBG Rights
Torture and Rendition
The Patriot Act and the 4th Amendment
Tax Cuts for the Rich
Non-accountability for the Bush Administration
Non-accountability for the Finance Debacle
Toothless Regulation of Finance
Catering to Big Oil
Not Standing with LABOR in this country
Watering Down the ACA and pushing through a Republican Scheme that preserves wealth stripping and profit in the Health Industry


Posted by: qofdisks | Jul 25, 2011 11:11:01 AM

I think there is a perception issue at the heart of this, kind of like the blind men and the elephant parable.

The media are largely there to shape perceptions and we always forget that. Journalism, at least that which I was inspired by when I was in college, just isn't very helpful. We might as well consider it to be off the table.

The truth is that there is no true progressive infrastructure that really can have force or effect. This is because, aside from too much dependency on protest, there has been a lot of confusion about how to respond to what the right wing coalition has been able to do.

Special interests have one simple objective: invest and reap rewards. Hire as many kids graduating from college in Journalism, PR and English as you need to shape public opinion at every level.

Progressives have a much harder challenge. Face reality and work on the best options for the best possible future, regardless of special interests.
No two people have the same take on the history of how we got here, the probable solutions, or the vision of the future we want and which is actually realistic.

People tend to forget as well that campaigns are not really about the issues. Not if you want to look at the goal of winning. Ironic.

Campaigns for about 40 years have become McDonaldized through practice in a set of tactics that just work. You don't have to argue about whether or not it might work to call phone numbers out of a GOTV database in order to build up a short term program for getting out the vote on election day. The more the various related parts of a GOTV package can be turned into bite sized pieces that various people who have done the drill over and over can just go out and do, the easier it is to manage a campaign effort. Thus, we have really turned over pretty much all the thinking about how to do politics to consultants who are really well paid.

Since the '70s, grass roots organizers have really pretty well been put out to pasture.

This expert system costs a lot of money to operate. TV commercials are the predominant cost, followed by direct mail and the consultants themselves.

The reason people spend the money is that this system works. The more it works, the more value there is and the more people put their faith in money.

A result of this is that the discussion about policy is centered around the constant question at the center of this methodology, which is where the swing voters are.

Whether progressive ideas have been historically the benchmarks of American pride, is less significant than what the system can make of the potential for winning the next election.

The place that a movement has to begin to reform this is clear thinking about how the political system is structured to render real debate rather less realistic when it is rather more marketable.

Obama is really just showing what the system really produces. What he himself is looking at is just very pragmatic. What is that? We have to be interested in how to define what he is looking at in better terms.

Having working with media consultants in the past, and having time to think about what I learned, I think the most useful insight I now have is that all of the communication systems we have, the most brilliantly capable inventions of the human mind, are actually at this point preventing communication.

We The People have come to prefer an all pervasive scheme of illusions to reality in pretty much every dimension. Many would actually rather die than wake up.

You see people all the time getting upset that there is a disparity between the way things appear on TV and the way reality actually works, because we have become so conditioned to prefer the rhythm of reality as seen on TV. It takes a very strong internal critique to become free of that.

That would be my prescription for what ails the Body Politick: start with throwing off the illusions.

We The People have got to become as capable of dealing in reality as the Founders were. We must demand of politicians and political leaders at every level that they also throw off the illusions and the exercises in spin and take up the art of honesty.

We can't let experts do our thinking for us.

This will be difficult. There is a lot that is going on that is not in the news and the truth can be very upsetting. That's why there is so much PR and so much sugar coating.

If we can develop the discipline of mind to be in a position to demand truth and reality instead of PR and spin, over time we will win America back.

Unfortunately, since the Republicans have been so successful over the past 40 or so years with lies and spin, there seems to be a solid consensus that the only way forward is to try to out-Republican the Republicans.

Sooner or later, we will have to be cured of that.

Posted by: Stuart Heady | Jul 25, 2011 11:22:58 AM

If we don't challenge Obama imagine what he will do in his second term. He must be taken to task for his awful positions and actions on the safety net but also on all the things gofdisks mentions.

Stuart all that rambling is all well and good but we can't be so hung up on what has been that we feel paralyzed. There was a ton of grassroots energy in the Dean campaign for instance. It's not all dead.

Posted by: DemWing | Jul 25, 2011 12:22:47 PM

It has taken forty years to lay these bricks. What we bequeath to the younger folks is something they will have to see clearly and truly.

It isn't merely a political problem. The entire political system moves too slowly. The entire world is entering an absolutely unprecedented situation. There have never been 10 billion people and no one has ever had to face resource related issues on this magnitude.

Posted by: Stuart Heady | Jul 25, 2011 3:28:02 PM

Some really good thoughts have been listed above but they all leave out an essential element that has to be dealt with before progress can be made. We need to accept the fact that the Democratic Party is just as corrupt as the Republican Party. Once we accept that the corruption of the Dem Elites in DC is an essential part of the problem we can look at the situation with some clarity.

Re: Obama - he's toast, just a warmed over Nixon Republican with no spine. No one will primary him because he's their guy. He is one with the DLC/New Dems/3rd Way folks and they won't allow a real challenger to enter the race. Ultimately they control the Party and they are doing well because of that fact. Time to move on. Sadly the Green Party appears deader than Hector B's Campaign for Senate but its the only structure we have and their hearts are in the right place.

We as progressives tried to take over the Democratic Party, put lots of energy and time into it and found that all our efforts didn't really matter - as the wonderful Dr. Dean walked out the door the elites moved back in and we were back to the same corrupt, corporate-owned, incompetent clowns as before.

Perhaps its time we give the Green Party a chance. If folks put half the effort into it that they do the corrupt Democratic Party imagine what we could do with it and we might even get them past their reluctance to win elections.

Posted by: Mike Folsom | Jul 26, 2011 7:52:46 AM

I am looking for a presidential candidate and perhaps the Greens will fit the bill. I would also vote Libertarian. The corporations are regretting taking the Libertarians in the Republican wing because now they would pay the nation's debts. Hilarious those stupid Teabaggers who don't really understand Libertarian-ism at all.

Posted by: qofdisks | Jul 26, 2011 11:26:05 AM

I meant the Libertarians will NOT pay the nation's debts.

Posted by: qofdisks | Jul 26, 2011 11:27:12 AM

There must be a taboo on thinking deeply about the truth about how we got where we are.

Kerry, Al Gore, Clinton, Dukakis, Mondale, Carter...all pretty much cut from the same cloth and representing a lot of years.

This is not about policy, but something very consistent and fundamental to Democratic culture. Some tendency to be idealistic, but practical at the same time.

Republicans just aren't that interesting.

Posted by: Stuart Heady | Jul 26, 2011 4:15:55 PM

I have no idea what Stuart Heady is ever trying to say. He strings together many sentences that don't hang together and in the end there is no point made that is clear to anyone except himself apparently.

What the hell are you trying to say, Stuart?

You act like you know some big secret and have some deep understanding nobody else has. Why aren't you leading some big movement by now if you and only you have the key to success?

You don't address any of the pros and cons raised about a primary or third party challenge. Isn't that what the thread is about?

Posted by: DemWing | Jul 26, 2011 7:27:17 PM