Is Obama vulnerable in 2012?

No, I don’t mean in the election itself, I mean inside the Democratic Party. The AP reports that the party base is split on whether Obama ought to face a challenger from within. That, they suggest, shows “how Obama’s reputation has frayed since 2008.”

Duh. The real question is how could the discontent expressed by Democratic voters lead them to abandon an incumbent President. Looking back, there is an interesting analogy with, believe it or not, the Jimmy Carter era.

What year - 1980 or 2012?
What year - 1980 or 2012?

For the younger readers, and those of us who would rather forget the 70s, let’s recap. In 1980 Carter had to fend off a serious challenge from the left of the Democratic Party led by the late Senator Ted Kennedy. While the Kennedy effort eventually collapsed, Carter was seriously weakened and he was, of course, trounced by Reagan, who carried 44 states. (Hence the Red Team Smashes Blue Team map above.) Carter’s loss was one of the worst in US political history.

The interesting question is how Kennedy emerged to mount a credible campaign against an incumbent Democrat. The “macro” situation was certainly favorable. The liberal/labor left that had a key role inside the party machinery was certainly upset over continuing economic stagnation and Carter’s unwillingness to push for labor law reform. Oil prices were high and we were facing an ongoing crisis with Iran and in the middle east generally.

If Carter only had to deal with the external situation he would have been in serious trouble. But that was not Carter’s only problem. Inside the Democratic Party a key split was engineered by a coalition of progressive Democrats organized in a group called the Democratic Agenda, led by, among others, the social democrat Michael Harrington. (My account here is based on the biography of Harrington written by Maurice Isserman.) Harrington considered himself a socialist but had cozied up to the left wing of the Democratic party since the War on Poverty in the JFK Administration. His 1962 book The Other America was a best seller and it was said the President himself was a reader.

Harrington and the Democratic Agenda counted key unions like the UAW, AFSCME and the IAM as allies. The Agenda group came to the 1978 midterm convention with their own set of proposals and nearly took control of the party platform, sending the Carter White House into panic mode. A young Hilary Rodham, recently wed to the new Arkansas Democratic Governor, Bill Clinton, was among the team fighting for Carter on the convention floor. While the Agenda lost, by narrow margins, in their push they created real legitimacy in the party for the Kennedy effort. Kennedy came to the floor and gave a classic wow speech advocating national health care “NOW,” red meat for the delegates.

While polls had Kennedy easily beating Carter early on, the campaign never got off the ground, perhaps largely because Kennedy himself seemed unsure of his own reasons for running. He certainly was not going to embrace Harrington’s social democratic vision and yet it was the left that had opened the door for him. He pulled back and was never a serious presidential candidate again.

The intriguing question today is whether a similar effort will arise in the party in light of the Obama collapse. If anything, the external situation today is even worse. The supposed “economic recovery” is anemic and there is real fear of a double dip recession. Obama has done almost nothing for the unions and their push for the Employee Free Choice Act is now dead. The AfPak war is set to continue for several years to come, at least, and tensions with Iran are high.

The problem today is the lack of credible intellectual capital in or around the Democratic party. In the late 70s there was still the remnant of serious intellectual debate in the party left over from the anti-war and civil rights movement and Harrington and the leftish unions were able to capitalize on that. Where would that discussion begin today? What set of ideas could revitalize the meaning of the party both for its base and for the white working class center that is crucial to win back if a Democrat is to keep the White House in 2012?

And there is of course a unique factor at work today: what Democrat wants to step forward to attempt to unseat the first black President, when civil rights has been so critical and divisive an issue in the party’s history?

There is little doubt, nonetheless, that whatever the result of the election on Tuesday the Obama Presidency is in deep trouble. That leaves a vacuum in the Democratic Party and that means there is an opportunity. For the independent left it means there is a chance to promote ideas to disillusioned Democrats and liberals who should be starting to awaken from the dream of hope and change right about now. The tragedy of Michael Harrington is that he was not willing to stake out such an independent view in the 1970s. Had he done so we might have a legacy upon which to draw.

Inside the party some of the many constituencies that will, as of November 3d, be vying for its future might turn to the legacy of the Democratic Agenda for lessons. Among these, there are three union groups potentially in a position to play a role similar to that that the UAW et al played in the late 70s: the AFL-CIO, SEIU and the teachers’ unions. With Joe Biden committed to Obama, at least for now, the AFL is probably stuck at the hip to Obama, too. But they may not be as helpful to Obama as he might wish. The Employee Free Choice Act was their top priority and it went nowhere even when Obama was in a position to do something about it. Their base is angry, at worst, or disappointed, at best.

SEIU, on the other hand, is more opportunistic about politics and since their favorite issue, immigration reform, now has no future there may be some pressure to think about an alternative to Obama. But the SEIU leadership, even without Obama’s Fifth Man, Andy Stern, is notoriously close to the Obama machine. For example, their Illinois leader, Tom Balanoff, scion of the stalinist Battling Balanoff clan on Chicago’s south side, is a close Obama ally from the early 90s and was a speaker at the 2008 Convention.

That leaves the teachers unions, including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). The NEA is much larger (3.2 mn members to the AFT’s 900,000) and always seats a significant delegation at the party convention every four years. The AFT was on the opposite side of the Harrington effort in 1980 because of the cold war liberal politics of their leadership. These so-called Shankerites still have a small group of followers around the union but it is not clear if they have the intellectual creativity to articulate a way forward for the party today.

But the teachers unions are among the most likely to be disaffected with Obama. He was welcomed with open arms by them as a candidate, despite the anti-union ideas that were being promoted by the education advisors in his camp like Linda Darling-Hammond, Bill Ayers, Chris Edley and Goodwin Liu. Now, the hostility of Obama to the unions is clear, particularly with the appointment of Arne Duncan as education secretary.

It is conceivable that the intellectual leadership of a post-Obama Democratic Party could take hold in or around the teachers unions with a policy agenda that links education reform to concerns about economic growth. That, in turn, might legitimate a viable challenge to the most troubled sitting President in many years.

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