Regular readers will know that I'm a big fan of presidential scholar Matthew Dickinson, but there's almost nothing I agree with in his open letter to Hillary Clinton urging her to challenge Barack Obama for re-nomination.
Well, one thing. I agree with him that serious nomination challenge are products of, rather than causes of, presidential weakness.
But a challenge from Clinton would be a complete disaster, both for her and for the Democrats.
Dickinson is certainly correct that Obama is in considerable trouble in his campaign for re-election (ground which Adam Serwer covered nicely earlier this week -- and that was before the stock market plunged today). But there's absolutely no evidence that this problem is specific to Barack Obama, and not to Democrats in general. In other words, were Clinton somehow able to dislodge the president, she would have the exact same problems that Obama has right now in the general election.
Dickinson notes, perhaps anticipating this point, that Clinton's approval ratings are quite good, and a lot higher than Obama's. But he admits that they would fall once she became a candidate, and that's exactly right -- she would most likely wind up no better than Obama is now, and likely quite a bit worse, since many Democrats would be not happy at all about her run. Nor is it easy to imagine the basis for her candidacy. Dickinson imagines it would be purely personal -- she would be rerunning the argument from 2008 that experience matters. But that's ridiculous; no one currently happy with Barack Obama (as most Democrats are) is going to defect to another candidate because she boast more experience. He's president!
The truth is that there have only been two comparable challenges to an incumbent president in the modern era (beginning in 1972), and neither is remotely comparable. Ronald Reagan in 1976 and Ted Kennedy in 1980 were both challenging incumbents who had little long-term loyalty from their parties. Gerald Ford was an accidental president, and Jimmy Carter was an accidental nominee. Obama's roots in the party many not go back a long time, but they are deep, as his resilience in the polls among Democrats demonstrates. No one really blame Reagan for taking on Ford in 1976, but there are a lot of intense Obama partisans who would never forgive a primary challenge. And there's no way for a Democrat to win without them.
Moreover, both Reagan and Kennedy were longtime leaders of their party's mainstream and dominant ideological faction, and both had strong arguments to the party faithful that they would restore proper party doctrine. Clinton has no such claim on party loyalists. And of course neither Reagan nor Kennedy was successful. There's no reason to believe that Clinton would be.
Basically, it's pretty simple: if Barack Obama is unpopular enough that he's vulnerable for nomination, then the nomination isn't worth very much. Under those circumstances, it might make sense for someone obscure who has little other chance of ever winning a Democratic nomination to take a shot at him; after all, such a candidate might have no better chance of ever winning. And there's always a case for a challenge based on issues or ideology. But a Clinton challenge would just be a complete disaster for her, and for the party.