Thursday, November 4, 2010

Feingold in 2012: Not happening

I was just wondering when the chatter about Obama getting a primary challenge in 2012 would commence. Pundits are nothing if not predictable: when one considers that nearly every president suffers losses in the midterm elections, the notion that this would be an inevitable precondition to a primary challenge is pretty silly to my way of thinking. Every president would get primaried! After the 1994 elections, pundits kept speculating about Bill Clinton getting a primary challenger. Of course, no prominent Democrats even seriously considered it, because it would have been crazy. But it looks like a Republican pollster is trying to kickstart the conversation with respect to Obama:

Other tea leaves McInturff read this morning are less positive for team Obama. McInturff's polling finds that those opposing Obama's current Afghanistan strategy are "overwhelmingly Democratic."

McInturff said the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, the continuing housing of terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay and Obama's propensity to "compromise" leave his left flank wide open for a Democratic challenger in the primaries. He added that based on his reading of things, a primary challenge is actually "very likely."

McInturff even had a potential name for Obama's liberal foil in 2012: just-defeated Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI.)

Feingold has already denied an intention to challenge Obama. I've alternately gushed and gnashed teeth about Feingold, but he is not an idiot. According to the most recent Gallup poll I could find with crosstabs, Obama's approval rating is 83% with Democrats and 88% with liberal Democrats. The latter number represents near-universal acclaim. There is no opening here. What's more, liberal Democrats are not the only kind of Democrats and Obama's numbers are fairly strong with both moderate and conservative Democrats, which would be harder groups for a challenge to Obama from the left to penetrate. As a side note, it is bizarre to me that much of the liberal blogosphere has scrambled to speak to the subset of that disapproving 12% that actively looks for news and commentary online, while ignoring those making up the other 88%. There's Balloon Juice and The Daily Dish for sites that don't take a completely hostile approach to Obama, I suppose.

There are two essentially firm rules about primary challenges to presidents. The first is that one they almost never succeed. It's hard enough to beat an incumbent president seeking re-election, but in order to get there in the first place you have to form a lot of relationships with powerful people within your party and earn their favor in order to win. Even a president widely considered an apostate by the base (as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush were) is still extremely hard for more ideological insurgents to knock off for that reason. For such an effort to be a success a president would probably have to alienate every single powerful interest in their party as well as breeding intense hostility among both the base and elites, which is rare since most presidents actually want another term--the only president who ever did anything like this was John Tyler way back in the 1840s, which is basically the same as saying it never happens. That's not to say it couldn't happen, but it's mostly to say that backing an insurgent is a very risky move for activists to take--it's an abandonment of a still very powerful person in favor of someone who has no track record of winning a national election--that few will go for it even if they sympathize with the insurgent more. I mean, most Republicans wanted Reagan to primary Ford in 1976, but it was not successful, and this is why.

The other firm rule is that presidents who face stiff primary challenges usually lose the general election. Ford faced Reagan in 1976, beat him and lost to Carter. Carter defeated Ted Kennedy in 1980 and lost to Reagan. And Bush won easily against Pat Buchanan, who had a lot of support from then-embryonic conservative talk radio. Bill Clinton beat him in the general election. These sorts of primaries breed intraparty divisions and bad blood that make it hard for the incumbent president to rebound from to unify the party (though Ford came very close). Feingold is no fool, and he is certainly aware that launching such an effort, even if he would want to, would fail and help hand the White House to a Republican. What's more, while I like Feingold and a lot of other liberals do as well, he doesn't have anywhere near the stature in the party to make a credible go of it--he's no Ted Kennedy, if you will. Ultimately, I doubt Obama will face any serious threat to his leadership in 2012 (perhaps Dean would try it, but I said serious), as the liberal discontent we often hear about is exaggerated, and the extent to which liberal Obama followers are disappointed with certain actions he's taken or not taken usually doesn't outweigh overall support for the man, which is hardly an insane position when one considers what he's accomplished, as this Rolling Stone article does. But if you don't believe me, listen to someone you trust to lie always: Bill Kristol thinks it will happen. So it won't.

This notion that Russ Feingold will challenge Obama for the Democratic nomination seems to be entirely a right-wing desire. There have been no stories about bad blood or feuds between the two men that I've come across, and while I'm sure he frustrated the White House on FinReg (and vice versa) that seems like a thin reed from which to launch a candidacy.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.