The reaction to my last post, (cross listed here at Salon) was a replay of the 2008 primary Democratic primary battle; closely fought, with passions running deep on both sides. Strong cases were made both for and against my argument, made in the guise of a generic Democrat, that Hillary Clinton should challenge President Obama in 2012. Boiling down the comments to their essence, supporters of a Clinton run make two essential points: First, Obama is in electoral trouble, and Clinton will likely run stronger in the general election, particularly among independents. Second, Obama has had his shot, and the results just haven’t been good. It’s time for change. Those opposing a Hillary run think it will divide the party, thus weakening whoever gets the Democratic nomination, and that it will likely cost Democrats a significant chunk of African-American support. More generally, they don’t think his record merits a nomination challenge.
Just to clarify, I should make clear that I’m not necessarily advocating the Clinton run – I’m merely making the case that I know many Democrats believe to be true: that the party is in deep trouble if Obama wins the nomination in 2012, and that Clinton is the best alternative. My goal was to get people (including Hillary) to think about it. Clearly I succeeded (well, I haven’t heard from the Secretary as yet).
There’s been a lot of debate about this on other websites as well. The always useful and interesting Jon Bernstein weighed in at his plainblog political site in opposition to my argument. Jon claims that, “a challenge from Clinton would be a complete disaster, both for her and for the Democrats.” His post builds on an earlier one he wrote that made the argument that had Clinton won the presidency in 2008, it’s not clear she would have done any better than Obama. Jon’s case against a Clinton challenge in 2012 rests on a point that lots of my readers have made: it would infuriate Democrats, and that she wouldn’t do any better than Obama. I think the first point is exactly right, and I think Jon could have gone even further to point out, that despite the vocal reaction among progressives against the recent debt deal, it actually got stronger support, according to Gallup, among Democrats and Liberals than independents or Republicans.
In short, Obama retains strong support among the party faithful, progressives’ protests against the debt deal notwithstanding Moreover, Jon notes, as did many readers, that previous primary challenges in the modern, post-1968 nomination era – by Reagan in 1976, Kennedy in 1980, and Buchanan in 1992, all failed. Why should Clinton do any better? Jon concludes, with a sentence that I confess I don’t understand, by writing: “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.” I’m guessing that means that if Obama loses the nomination, whoever wins it can’t win the general election? If that’s what Jon means, I disagree.
In any case, here’s the response I would make if I was a Clinton Democrat: .Look again at that Gallup poll – it’s not good news for Obama’s reelection chances. Sure, the deal is viewed favorably by Democrats, but independents hate it – and that’s the group Obama was targeting when he made the deal. So far, and these are only initial results, the payoff doesn’t seem to be high. And to compare Clinton to these previous challengers ignores 2008. She’s not an upstart – she’s someone who already lays claim to substantial support within the party, and who fought Obama to a nomination draw. Do you think after the last three plus years in office Obama is now a stronger candidate, and that she’s weaker?
Nor do I think she’d find it difficult to make the case for a nomination challenge. People are digging too deep, I think, if they are trying to parse Clinton’s motivations in running. This isn’t a case of “What’s in it for her?” Nor is it, contrary to Jon’s claim, a run that would be based solely on Clinton’s “resume” (which, by the way, I think matches up far better to Obama’s than Jon does; Obama’s not just president – he’s president at a time when things are not going well on his watch. Not sure that bolsters the ‘ol c.v.) In short, Clinton’s challenge would be justified by the quite reasonable calculation that Obama is going to lose in 2012. How do we know Clinton would do better? We don’t, but there’s case to be made that, in a general election race, although Clinton may lose a chunk of African-American support, she would more than compensate by running stronger among independents and – if a different type of identify politics comes into play – among older women too. In short, this is an empirical question – one that Clinton would undoubtedly try to answer before throwing her hat in the ring. And she would still have to convince Democrats to swallow their misgivings and look at the party’s broader interest in retaining the presidency. But the bottom line is that she probably won’t do worse, and she might do better.
I would make a final point – there seems to be an underlying sentiment among some of those opposing a Clinton challenge that it is somehow demeaning to the President. The implicit suggestion is that he is owed the Democrat nomination for a second term, and to challenge that is to show disrespect. I confess that I can’t understand this logic – indeed, this runs against the grain of American presidential politics, which are premised on the idea that presidents preside with the consent of the governed, and when they lose that consent, we throw the bums out. Heck, we have a deep and honorable history of doing just that. I don’t see why Obama should be the exception!
Anyway, that’s the response I think a Hillary supporter would make. I’m pretty sure it won’t convince Jon, or many Obama supporters. Nor do I think Clinton is going to run – or even that she should. But if she did, she’d join a long line of candidates who challenged their party’s incumbent president. And that’s how it should be: presidents aren’t handed the nomination for a second term – they have to earn it. Here I disagree with Jon: a party challenge would be good for Democrats, and for the nation.