Thursday, August 4, 2011

Of Course Hillary Shouldn't Run Against Obama

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.


  1. Agree with JB completely. Dickinson's letter is one for the great Hall of Fail.

  2. What about Pat Buchanan in 1992? He challenged Bush and did alright in New Hampshire?

  3. I have to think the ill informed swing voters who will decide the election wouldn't see any difference between Clinton and Obama since Clinton is Obama's Secretary of State. As far as they would be concerned, Clinton is part of the administration. To the extent they would want to vote against Obama because of the bad economy, they would also want to vote against Clinton if she replaced Obama on the ticket.

    Democrats are stuck with Obama and whatever faults they may find in him, they should remember what the result was of staying home and letting Boehner replace Pelosi and work hard to see Obama re-elected with a Democratic Congress.

  4. True enough, though a primary challenge by a principled liberal or progressive could position him or her for a run in 2016. As I see it, Obama's main weakness has been an unwillingness to stand up for what he believes. He gives great speeches and then concedes the store when the GOP threatens him.

  5. I've long believed that Hillary would have been the only plausible primary challenger to Obama--if he hadn't made her part of his administration. Even then, it's unlikely her candidacy would go any further than Reagan/Kennedy/Buchanan, but like the others she might have been able to make a splash. Now, not so much. Only if he pulls an LBJ and drops out of the race, which seems unlikely no matter how unpopular he becomes, would any other Democrat stand a chance.

  6. Rob,

    There certainly are plenty of liberals who agree with you. The question is: would a run against him really set up a candidate for 2016? I don't see it; I think it would be more like what happened to Pat Buchanan or Gene McCarthy.

    Remember, the Dem constituency that is fed up with Obama is a whole lot smaller than the constituencies who believe he's great.

  7. It might just be who I run with, but I haven't met any Democrats recently that think Obama is "great." That suggests that the difference between the size of his pro and con Dem. constituencies maybe smaller than you think. Of course, they all like him better than any Rep. but will that be enough in this ever diminishing economy?

  8. Anon,

    It's who you run with. Obama's approval rating remains high among Dems.

  9. If Obama somehow decided, LBJ-style, that his re-election prospects were so dim that he "would not seek or accept the nomination" of his party, Hillary would be the logical choice to step in. A better choice than Biden (she would at least offer the hope of energizing women, who Democrats need to come out in force, and who may be especially demoralized by the Obama's perceived as too weak response to Republican's attacks on policies that especially impact their lives.) But still, she might do no better than Humphrey did in '68.

    And of course that is NOT going to happen. Nor is any primary challenger to Obama going to happen.

    Obama's prospects are going to depend on how much farther out over the cliff the Republicans are willing to go in the upcoming year -- even more so than how badly the economy is doing.

    The American people aren't radical. Yet, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Tea Party represents a radical strain that has always been a part of our politics, that has on occassion captured a party (Goldwater '64), but that has never captured the nation.

    This time around, because of our dire economic circumstances, a radical candidate may get a lot more votes than a Goldwater did in '64, but still, not nearly enough to win the Presidency.

    If Tea Partying Religious Right Revived John Bircher elements capture the Republican nomination(Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, etc.) Obama wins. If someone like Romney, on the other hand, who that increasingly dominant faction of the GOP distrusts and dislikes, squeaks by and wins the nomination, then it will be a race. But one that Obama still has a chance of winning.

  10. I would rate Obama as at least very good bordering on great for his first 2 years. Since November 2010, not so much. He's allowed House Republicans to set the agenda and has chosen not to use the tools at his disposal to fight back.

    Nonetheless mounting a serious primary challenge against Obama would just make it that much harder for him to win re-election. There isn't one of the GOP candidates who I believe would be 1% as good a President as Obama, so that's not a risk I'd want to see taken. It'll be tough enough for him to win due to the economy and the unlimited, secretly funded negative advertising the Supreme Court has unleashed.

  11. The only path for a viable challenger to Obama is this scenario: that Hoover-like, over the next few months he stubbornly refuses to change course on the economy, not even offering much by way of job stimulus, just a few token crumbs, while the economy goes into double-dip recession and O's approval numbers go seriously south as he sticks with Geithner's rosy optimism. At that point, I think enough grassroots supporters as well as Establishment Dems would begin to panic and demand a late-entry challenger who's strong enough to match and beat Obama.

    I just don't see such a scenario however, as O appears to be setting up to make adjustments in the jobs area sufficient to placate the base and make himself appear to be fighting for their interests. And in any case, he's not quite in the same stubbornly stupid category as Hoover or LBJ. He's also got personal likability going for him, something Johnson clearly did not have -- just the opposite in fact, he was by 1968 fiercely despised by the liberal wing of the party and for good reason.

    Hillary is the closest we have to an RFK, even as that comparison is far from perfect given her moderate views and close association with the admin as SOS. No way will she run however, not even in the scenario I outlined above. I think it would take that plus all the Cong'l Black Caucus plus many public black leaders like the Rev Sharpton deciding they've had it with O and can't afford a 2012 rout by the GOP, as they publicly call on her to step into the race. Very unlikely in the extreme.

    Btw: re LBJ and his withdrawal in 1968. Most people are unaware that he was actually planning (perhaps at the very time of his announcement in March) to get back in later on -- once the remaining 3 primary contenders beat up on each other sufficient to split their delegates and leave no one with a clear path to nomination. At least this is the speculation from his later actions close to the August convention, according to close associates, who state he did in fact inquire about his support in Chicago with a view to a last-minute triumphant re-entry into the race to reclaim the nomination. I think LBJ likely had this in mind from the get-go: step aside when he was unpopular and avoid the direct battle with another Kennedy and possible humiliating defeat, let the others bloody each other, then get back in after enough frustrated Dems would demand order and unity for the divided party. This is also the view of MLK at the time of LBJ's announcement -- Dr King strongly suspected a political deception was underway.

  12. I for one am delighted to see the Democrats cannibalize one another. Couldn't happen to nicer people.

  13. Tea Party = Modern Day KKK! The only thing President Obama has done wrong is being a black man. May God have mercy on the United States.

  14. The notion that voters would see no difference between Clinton and Obama is an overly simplistic and completely wrongheaded view. It may be true that there is little difference between their policy stances in many, if not most areas; but there is a huge difference in their style of leadership and approach to politics. For progressives and liberals who actually believe that their ideology is correct, they are rightfully dismayed at both the way Obama has betrayed it in his compromises, and undermined public belief in it through his ineffectiveness as a leader. The whole problem with everything written in this post is that it assumes that Clinton would have to present different policies to give people a reason to vote for her and not Obama, when that is not true. What she offers in contrast to Obama is the willingness to fight for those policies, and a much greater ability to sell them to the public because she is not constrained by Obama's fetish of viewing himself as the grand bipartisan master.
    The only thing you have right is that Clinton would have very little chance to win the nomination because of the loyalty Obama would be able to command from African American voters and people too proud, stubborn, or ignorant to acknowledge how completely disastrous Obama’s approach has been.
    It is these people who are destroying the progressive movement because it is their unyielding loyalty to Obama that allows him to sell them out without any fear of reprisal. I simply wonder how many African American men are going to have to go without jobs, so that Obama can pass terrible policies that will do nothing to aid growth or increase jobs in order to pander to so-called moderates in an attempt to save his job.
    On a final note, I think there is also a case to be made that a Clinton challenge could be good for Democrats in the long run by helping to ensure that Obama loses. Considering the fact that it is politically impossible to do anything that would substantially improve the economic situation it may be better to let the Republicans have power so that their ideas wind up being the ones discredited by the horrible state of the economy, rather than this being wrongly done to liberal approaches.

  15. Of Course Hillary should run...and of course she would win...and of course it's the only way to save the nation. Stop your poli-sci academic crap. The country is in peril!

  16. "But there's absolutely no evidence that this problem is specific to Barack Obama, and not to Democrats in general."
    Are you blind, deaf, and dumb? Obama has proven time and again to be on the extreme right side of his own party! Take selling Romneycare as a "Democratic" reform, his stingyness on the stimulus, his deficit commission consisting of trigger happy "entitlement" cut advocates, him totally unnecessary putting Social Security and Medicare on the negotiation table, or his total capitulation in the debt ceiling! All those failures, with very negative consequences, are his own, triggered by his lack of spine and his preference for "post-partisan" solutions that weirdly always favor the republicans.

    It's NOT the Dem party in general that's the big problem. Nancy Pelosi looks like a bare fisted fighter for workers and low income households in comparison. Next to the sellout Obama, even lame old Harry Reid looks like a determined advocate of liberal values. With his policy of appeasement, the president has lost virtually all support in Congress, for everybody plain to see. It's only the Chicago gang in the WH, a few brainwashed O-Bots among the Dems, and large parts of the African American minority who still defend him (and even among those, criticism of his spineless ways is rising). That's not enough to win a reelection, and since any serious improvement of the economy is becoming increasingly unlikely with the cuts having a negative effect on growth, a serious challenger would have a very good chance at the primary.

    Don't be fooled by the few, inconclusive historical precedents: There's always a first time! For instance, Obama is the first African American president. Did you argue "no, he can't" on the reason that no black guy had ever been elected to that job before? Come on!


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