Battle lines are being drawn. Finally. The Obama tax cut deal was a betrayal too far. And now Dump Obama has become part of the national dialogue big time. First there were a few squeaks. Then columns by Michael Lerner Save Obama’s presidency by challenging him on the left, and Clarence Jones Time to Think the Unthinkable: A Democratic Primary Challenge To Obama’s Reelection, among others. On the New York Times front page, Matt Bai of the Times wrote a skeptical piece Murmurs of Primary Challenge to Obama (demoted from its original title Talk on the Left of a Primary Challenge), in which he tellingly concludes:
should the president’s progressive critics warm to the idea, it might not take a particularly credible primary challenge to weaken Mr. Obama’s chances for re-election. It might only take a challenge designed to do exactly that.
This was followed by the inevitable counter-attack, from the likes of Ed Kilgore and David Broder, plus any number of lesser lights, touting three points:
(1) The tax cut deal was a masterful stroke — stimulating the economy and ensuring Obama’s re-election in 2012; and
(2) No “serious” challenger would dare risk their credibility and prestige by entering the primaries, the ultimate proof being that they haven’t done so yet.
(3) A primary challenge would only serve to harm the very Democratic Party that we all hold so dear.
Party operatives are showing up on the progressive blogs. [Here are a few giveaways when you meet them. They point out that Obama is Black (a guilt-tripping that was quite effective circa 1968, less so today). They refer to “our president.” And they love the phrase “get with the program.”]
Time for a fresh look
First let me make one thing absolutely clear so nobody has to waste excess keyboard energy. Nothing I do, think, infer, plan, gesticulate or condone is predicated on actually unseating Obama as the 2012 Democratic nominee or having a progressive defeat him in the general election. Got that? Nice if it happens, but not a precondition.
Okay. Now that Dump Obama has moved from the musings of a few of us fringe lefties to the mainstream, it’s beginning to take some shape. There are two main levels of division.
We’ve been fixating on this one for a while. Dem primary vs. 3rd party. Hard left programmatics vs. populist liberal. Electoral politics vs. overthrowing the system. Perfecting the welfare state vs. socialism. It’s been fun, and at times illuminating. With Dump Obama being little more than a gleam in some of our eyes, what else ya gonna talk about? But that has run its course. The arguments are out there, repeated endlessly, my fingers grow tired. At this point, I don’t think a lot of minds are going to be changed on the merits of our ideological arguments. We move onto the terrain of …
(2) organizational forces
Allow me to digress here.
I’ve been spared a lot of work by other diarists on FireDogLake, actually. Both Bill Eignor (You Want Better Choices? Better Start Working Now) and Rayne (The Angry Left: Rougher Roads, Steeper Challenges to Get Here have written excellent and truly challenging pieces on the mechanics of gaining power within the Democratic Party. I consider both important because — while I have some differences — they show the kind of disciplined, hard work traditionally necessary to have even a little bit of influence within the party.
For my purposes, they also illustrate how — in the absence of an independent anchor — principled radicals get absorbed into the Democratic Party machinery. You pay your dues, do the committee work, make the calls, knock on the doors, build personal relationships, become trusted as a loyal worker, become chair of this or delegate to that. The premise is that — as a committed progressive — you rise in the party and begin to have some influence, toughen up this resolution, lobby that legislation. Ultimately, if enough do this, you and others like you will transform the party.
Today, we see the agony of that path
Democrats at every level are aghast at this tax deal. They complain. They amend. They pass resolutions and sign petitions, and mutter vague threats. A few are beginning to talk primary — in the abstract — only to shudder and step back.
Good. They are to be applauded. But in the aggregate they are not to be trusted (which doesn’t mean there aren’t trustworthy individuals among them). If the big name doesn’t step forward, they will curse their fate but stand helpless before the Obama center-right juggernaut. Their positions, their friendships, their deals, all work to hold them in line. If there were a serious surge to primary Obama, they would — I believe — tentatively, perhaps even joyfully join it. But they will not lead it.
Who will lead it? The rabble, we who do not have power within the party, we who do not fear being shunned because we are not dependent on party approval. We who are foolish enough to believe you should do something simply because it is right.
But there is a problem here. The party old guard is better organized than we are. They are more disciplined. They have more money. They have the media. They have the comfort of official validation. Having more to lose, they fight with a fierce determination. They are organizationally smarter, oh yes they are! It’s like the imperial British redcoats standing in solid ranks cutting down masses of spear-throwing natives. Yes, we natives get restless from time to time, but a few well-aimed volleys settle the matter quickly.
We’ll go independent? Good. Gets us out of their hair. We’ll stay home? Makes it easier to say the electorate has turned right.
They have one big problem.
History is on our side
This isn’t some comforting cosmic abstraction. After Obama was elected, some talked about political realignment, all excited. A long-lasting progressive majority, his election was only the beginning. We’ve got realignment, all right, but not realignment we can believe in. It’s an alliance of the Democratic Party centrists with the right and far right. The liberal majority of the Democratic Party are now labeled “fringe,” and are being cut loose. The tax deal fully embodies this. Some form of it will likely pass through an alliance of Obama, Blue Dogs, and Republicans.
The only alternatives are radical alternatives! WPA-style jobs program isn’t just some far-left scheme — it’s the only way this country will return to decent levels of unemployment. With the PERMANENT changes in the U.S. and world economy, only a full-scale recreation of a full-scale safety net will prevent millions and millions of Americans from being ground into the dirt, sick, homeless and starved. They talk about structural unemployment as though the answer were job-training programs. But the structural unemployment we face is one where millions and millions of jobs are just plain gone. NEVER to return, far beyond any conceivable re-training.
These millions of people are not the fringe. They are masses of the American people, and their plight casts a pall over every working American, every family considering their future, hoping to educate their kids, hoping against hope that they don’t get sick, hoping against hope that someday they’ll be able to live in a dignified retirement. The enormity of this is only beginning to strike home.
They are on the edge of having nothing to lose.
Yet they are cut adrift politically. Once the Democratic Party represented them, even if badly, even when it was in the minority. Now it makes no such pretense. Their needs are poison.
We the rabble, our disorganized hodge-podge of lefties and liberals and progressives and revolutionaries and ne’er-do-wells are their hope. We have to let that sink in.
What’s to be done?
The pundits are telling us that Dump Obama is irrational. Can’t win. Counter-productive. And by their rules, their boxes, their manipulations of outcomes, they are absolutely right and expect that they will always be absolutely right! I don’t give a flying fuck! Dump Obama sends the message that we are going to fight. And that establishes a new rationality. New rules. Our own.
So Dump Obama is beginning to go mainstream. There is a good likelihood now that there will be a primary campaign. Will a big name jump in, hoping to capitalize on our desperation and the political opening and the threat to those comfortable with the current state of affairs who are smart enough to see that Obama is bringing the entire party down? Maybe. Maybe not. Will a lesser figure jump in, someone with less to lose, maybe a Kucinich, maybe someone we’ve not heard of? I’d say there’s a good chance.
And what of our puny efforts here at FDL? Events are lurching out of control. If a major Democratic figure enters the race, they will hire established party operatives, the types whose greatest fear is that the left may do something embarrassing. Or that the left may gain an independent organizational foothold in the party, something they fear worse than losing, as they’ve proven many a time. If a minor Democratic figure enters, we’ll face the same problems on a lesser scale.
In any event, whoever primaries Obama will likely sell us out. I go into this with eyes wide open, you don’t have to warn me about being sold out. It comes with the territory.
But this is why our efforts are more important than ever. When that moment or moments arrive, we have to be there, ready to say no. Lose the primaries? Dig in organizationally. Learn how to play the game, as Rayne and Bill Eignor point out, but better. And why will we end up any better than generation after generation of idealists turned sellout? Because we can set up an independent anchor that liberals haven’t had since the trade union movement of the 30’s. And because the middle-of-the-road liberal options are no longer available.
It’s one thing for the system to buy people off when it has money. It gets harder when the system is broke. Progressives are still stunned that Obama isn’t making the customary gestures to mollify us, throw us a few bones and we’ll be good puppies. Instead, Obama and the punditocracy and the party regulars are telling us to get fucked. If there’s a double-dip recession, it will be our fault. We are being demonized. And I don’t just mean us fringies. I mean loyal Democrats who’ve believed in America all our lives.
So we lose the primaries? Go independent. Go independent and take our base, such as it is, with us. Independent politics is a larger force than in past days. It is an option. A Democratic Party breakaway leads to a different dynamic than the usual ideologically driven 3rd party. It can become a genuinely populist party, it can embody the needs of the abandoned American people. It can be big. And even a whiff of this is a powerful force. It gives us real leverage.
Some might not have the stomach for this kind of organizational infighting, been burned too many times, too many things they can’t swallow. No problem. We can’t take the Democratic base independent if there’s no independent anchor. There has to be a significant independent candidate. The opportunity is greater than ever, but I see remarkably little on that front. Get the independent track in motion.
The Democratic Party is in flux. It is right now in a state of shock. Can’t believe what Obama’s done to them. Can’t believe the dreams of 2008 were shattered so quickly. Progressives can fight or be destroyed. Established Democrats are riding the fence, threatened but still temporarily comfortable. We want them, but we can’t count on them.
So the leadership will have to come from we who have nothing to lose.