Monday, June 28, 2010

The President and Primaries

Yes, back to this topic, again.  This time at the request of Eric Alterman:
Moreover, the fight over "primary-ing" useless Blue Dogs like Blanche Lincoln strikes me as the wrong argument. My question would be why would the White House get involved in these races at all. (And those people making the "weak presidency" argument are uniquely required to answer this question.) Certainly, it isn't because they were backing the favorite; neither Lincoln, nor Arlen Specter before her, were strong candidates in their respective general elections. (In fact, IIRC, both of them fared rather worse in prospective final elections than their primary opponents did.) Certainly, given their records, the White House could have lived with either Bill Halter or Joe Sestak just as easily as with Lincoln and Specter. So why even bother to get involved? The only answer, to me, would seem to be that the White House preferred Lincoln and Specter for its own reasons. Be nice to know what those are.
Yes, it would!  Well, it would be nice to know what deals were made, or what strategies went into it.  Granted, I'm not sure why the "weak presidency" crowd would be the ones asked this question.  No one thinks that the presidency is weak and so the president should just wait for bills to veto, or something like that.   No -- because the presidency gives very little uncontested formal power to the person who sits in the Oval Office, he has to be aggressive about using all his opportunities to help him achieve his goals.  In this, he's like everyone else in the political system -- except that he has more of those opportunities than anyone else.  Including the ability, at least if the conditions are right, to help or hurt incumbents seeking re-election.

As far as what happened in these cases, we really don't know...but I'll try a little speculation.

My guess would be that support for the two incumbents was the result of bargains that the White House struck (whether the agreements were explicit or not)..  In the case of Arlen Specter, what the White House received was a mainstream Democrat instead of a moderate Republican for most of the current Congress.  That's a fairly big deal!  Among other things, it's hard to believe that pre-primary Republican Arlen Specter would have voted for health care reform; without him, the Democrats would have been a vote short.   Specter was the 60th Democrat (once Al Franken was seated).  If the cost of that involved having the White House support a marginally less liberal candidate in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, it seems like a pretty good deal to me -- certainly, it isn't evidence that Obama had a general, abstract preference for less liberal Democrats.

What about Lincoln?  Well, it's a lot harder to know about that one.  We know that Lincoln has been with the president on a number of critical votes: the key cloture votes on health care, the stimulus, the banking bill.  We also know that she opposed liberals on several items, perhaps must obviously the public option, but also labor legislation, and on the details of various other measures.  It's worth noting that (as far as I recall) Lincoln was never the deciding vote against anything supported by mainstream Democrats; on the public option she was one of perhaps have who opposed it in its weakest forms, and one of probably a dozen or more who opposed stronger versions.  But there's no question that she's been on the conservative end of the party.  We also have a lot less access to information about what, if any, bargaining was involved.  With Specter, it's pretty clear that support for reelection was the price for getting him to switch parties.  With Lincoln, we have no idea whether she voted for the stimulus, health care, and banking reform as part of a deal to obtain support in her primary.   Perhaps those were her preferred votes anyway, and Obama got nothing for his support; perhaps she was inclined to oppose the entire Democratic agenda, and he persuaded her to stick with him on the big votes.  We really don't know.

Moreover, there could be bigger picture issues involved, as well.  There may be several Democrats concerned about primary challenges (and not just from the left).  Obama may believe that he's better off supporting most incumbent Senators if they're challenged in primaries; if so, he may consider his support for Lincoln as a down payment in earning the trust of other Senators.

It's also worth mentioning that in neither the PA or AR case was the challenge a clear case of left/right.  Nor was there clear trial heat polling data, at least in my opinion, indicating that either the incumbent or the challenger would be a much better candidate in the fall -- both challengers and incumbents were clearly strong, qualified professional politicians, so its not as if any of them could be expected to run a lot worse than early polling would indicate.  I can certainly understand arguments for challengers Bill Halter and Joe Sestak based on the belief that they would be more electable, but at least in my view, the evidence is far from clear-cut (and was even less clear cut when the decisions were made).

It's also worth remembering that White House support is certainly welcome from all candidates, but it isn't a magic wand.  For one thing, Obama clearly cannot control all Democratic Party resources, as seen by all those within the party network who supported Sestak and Halter.  Nor do we know that he could control Bill Clinton, who campaigned in Arkansas for Lincoln; we don't know whether Clinton did that on behalf of the president, or in response to his own political alignment within his home state.  As it turned out, the Arkansas primary was very close, and so even if Obama's help was fairly marginal it was certainly important.  However, no one knew that would be the case when the decisions were made (as it was not, it turned out, the case in Pennsylvania.  That's important to remember because it means that Obama was probably not able to simply demand whatever he wanted from Blanche Lincoln in return for his support, as Glenn Greenwald claimed:

Back when Lincoln was threatening to filibuster health care if it included a public option, the White House could obviously have said to her:  if you don't support a public option, not only will we not support your re-election bid, but we'll support a primary challenger against you (emphasis his).
He certainly could have said that, but we have no idea how she would have responded.  Perhaps she would have said: screw that -- there's no way I'm going to vote for the public option, and unless you support me, I'll never vote for health care or banking reform.

We don't know, and Lincoln's narrow margin doesn't prove anything, one way or another, about it.

I suppose I need to be clear here: nothing I'm saying here means that Obama should be immune from criticism from the left for his actions in these primaries, or for that matter for anything.  What it means is that Obama's actions should be looked at with the understanding that most of what he does is in the context of bargaining and dealmaking -- what Richard Neustadt called "persuasion" -- and not in the context of giving orders.  As I've said, for activists it's not really a viable strategy to admit to not knowing who's responsible for something and leaving it at that, and it may make sense to push the president even when it's possible that he's actually doing everything you want behind the scenes (and, of course, it may turn out that he's opposing you behind the scenes, in which case pushing him is also a good strategy). But smart advocates will recognize that presidents cannot simply order everyone to do what they want, and that therefore it's certainly possible that the president is working on their behalf even when things turn out the other way.


  1. If Specter can be about the current Congress, why can't Lincoln be about the next 3 Congresses? That is, nominate a liberal in AR, and you elect a conservative Republican in AR.
    The other example that can be put forward on this is, of course, Lieberman. Obama publicly pushed for bringing him back into the fold; seems like doing so might have been to make him less likely to oppose the Dems out of spite (which, frankly, I wouldn't put past Lieberman).

  2. Matt,

    Yes -- in fact, I think it's almost certain that "punishing" Holy Joe would have resulted in a rightward swing that would have cost the Dems a critical vote on lots of issues. Sometimes, that might be worth doing, but given how rare a case he is I really don't think so.

    On Lincoln, I think what I'd say is that one should be aware of the possibility that the WH calculated (correctly or not, but honestly) that she was the better November candidate. I think that the other side would say that, well, of course they would say that; they're just acting out of a bias that liberals will never win. Since as far as I can tell Halter isn't actually more liberal than Lincoln, though, I'm not really sure what to make of either side.

  3. "As I've said, for activists [...] it may make sense to push the president even when it's possible that he's actually doing everything you want behind the scenes [...]. But smart advocates will recognize that [...]"

    OK, what if they recognize it? What should they do differently, or say differently? Perhaps you just mean they shouldn't be quite as insistent about putting down the president about these decisions? Or are you really not addressing activists?

    "On Lincoln, I think what I'd say is that one should be aware of the possibility that the WH calculated (correctly or not, but honestly) that she was the better November candidate."

    All of the people pushing Halter that I read were saying it was about punishing Lincoln, and maybe a little bit of "devil you know, devil you don't", and not really about anything else. The idea being that even if the replacement wasn't any better, the threat of being replaced might motivate senators to pay more attention to progressives.


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