During the Seventies, we had two ineffectual presidents unable to deal with the economic and other hard times that confronted them. Both were primaried and both went on to lose the general election. However, their parties had very different fates after those elections.
After Ronald Reagan lost to Gerald Ford, he did not stop campaigning and organizing. Not only did he go on to win the next time, but his 1976 campaign is basis of the Conservative Movement that has dominated American politics ever since. In retrospect, conservatives would surely say that the Regan Revolution and all that followed was worth it to suffer through four years of Carter. Additionally, what most people remember of Gerald Ford is Chevy Chase’s imitation, and no one brands his failures onto the Republican Party.
Even thirty years after Carter’s defeat, we can’t use the word Liberal because the Republicans succeeded in branding him a “Liberal.” Of course, Carter was a moderate at best and actually started the country on the road to de-regulation. But for anyone old enough, his feckless “malaise” is forever mixed up with the word “liberal” and the Democratic Brand.
The question with Obama is, can we afford not to primary him? If Obama continues on his present course and does not show real strength and leadership, he will lose. In losing, his ineffectualness and lack of spine will become that of the Democratic Party and Progressives. The Left will be redefined in terms of Obama’s positions, as the Republicans try to roll back even those small accomplishments. And we will be out of power for another generation.
In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, a far-sighted scientist can see that the Galactic Empire is crumbling and is to be followed by a thirty-thousand-year-long dark age, but with the right steps, the darkness can be limited to only a thousand years. There is probably no saving an Obama Presidency that stubbornly refuses to save the country and itself. There may even be no way of preventing the Republicans from taking the White House. But conducted properly, a primary challenge now can result in victory: if not in 2012, then in 2016.
Frankly, a 2012 challenge has a better chance of winning than conventional wisdom gives it. The fight for a nomination is about the base and appealing to its parts. At this point, what part of the base has Obama not disappointed and angered? Challenging Obama may be like pushing on a partially opened door.
We saw in 2008 that organizing a primary campaign apart from the built-in support of the established party can create a national movement for change. A successful campaign has to recruit and organize supporters around the country, it must create its own message machine and rapid response team, and it must create donors and fundraise successfully in order to support all of these efforts. Modern technologies make this even easier than it was in the days of Reagan’s 1976 campaign. But, to really succeed, the movement cannot be discarded at the moment of the Inauguration (just ask the poor folks trapped in the tunnel with the Purple tickets).