Sunday, July 31, 2011

Primary Challenge Could Help Obama, Dems

Even before President Barack Obama began upsetting everyone with his debt ceiling deals, various voices, including progressive stalwart Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), had been suggesting a Democratic primary challenge would be good for Obama and Democrats.

The Republicans' whole raft of primary candidates, running the gamut from Mitt Romney soup to Michele Bachmann (R-MN) nuts, appeared extraordinarily redundant when the sitting President was politically somewhere to the right of Richard Nixon.

Democrats, on the other hand, would do well to put up someone to represent their traditional values.

"If a progressive Democrat were to run, I think it would enliven the debate," Sanders told WNYC radio in March. Sanders is an Independent who caucuses with Democrats.

Add Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to those who had suggested a Democratic primary challenger to the President would be a good thing for both Obama and the party.

"I think primaries can have the opportunity of raising the issues and making the Democratic candidate a stronger candidate," Kucinich said in February. "I think it's safe to predict that President Obama will be the nominee of the Democratic Party, but he could be a stronger nominee if he receives a strong challenge in the primary."

A poll last fall found Democrats evenly split over whether Obama should be challenged in a Democratic primary. 46% were opposed to a primary challenge, while 45% favored one.

Even Ralph Nader figured Democrats ought to consider primary challengers to Obama, although he didn't nominate himself, as when he ran as the Green Party candidate against Al Gore.

The poll and Sanders' and Kucinich's comments came before Obama's approval rating dipped to 40%.

A primary challenge could help define Obama's positions, and might encourage him to engage and energize his party's base. At the very least, it would give Obama a chance to stand on a stump and campaign, rather than simply cede the primary season election coverage to Republican rivals. It would give Obama a chance to press the flesh and make speeches and do all the things he's good at, rather than just wrangle with recalcitrant lawmakers over budgets and policy disputes.

A progressive primary challenge could help Democrats define a progressive alternative, and redefine Obama's position in the political spectrum from left to center.

It could give the 72% of Americans who believed taxes should be raised on wealthier Americans to preserve Medicare and Social Security benefits an alternative who represented their priorities. It could give the 68% of Americans who believed federal debts should be addressed with a combination of revenue reforms and spending cuts, or revenue reforms alone, an alternative who represented their priorities.

Whatever happens over the next few days in the ongoing melodrama precipitated by the Republicans' unconscionable hostage-holding of the nation's debt ceiling, rank-and-file Democrats, to say nothing of the 72% of Americans who preferred raising taxes instead of cutting Medicare and Social Security, have become increasingly alarmed at how far to the right of Nixon Obama had proven to be.

The nation's debt ceiling is a self-imposed credit limit requiring Congressional approval to raise. Normally a pro forma vote, Republicans have been holding the debt ceiling hostage to political demands they could never have passed through normal legislative processes. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned that unless the debt ceiling is raised by Aug. 2, the federal government would no longer be able to fund operations, pay off existing obligations, or send out the 55 million Social Security checks hitting the mail room Aug. 3.

The President's bargain, hashed out with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) because he presumably was a more amenable pea-eater than House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), seemed to enrage everyone from placard-waving Tea Party zealots to House Progressive Caucus leader Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). Not a confidence builder. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and John Kyl (R-AZ) seemed to like it. Not a confidence builder.

The President's deal to get the debt ceiling raised was purported to reduce the federal deficit by some $2.8 trillion, with $1.2 trillion in cuts to discretionary spending over ten years up front, and an additional $1.6 trillion coming from more cuts and maybe, maybe, some tiny, tiny, non-Grover Norquist-offending revenue tweaks to be determined by a bicameral, bipartisan committee in time to spoil everyone's enjoyment of turkey and football games this fall. Meaning a group of three Democratic Senators and three Democratic Congressional Reps, along with three Republican Senators and three Republican Congressional Reps were supposed to come up with a list of budget cuts and revenue hikes by Thanksgiving, to be approved by simple majority votes in both chambers of Congress. Failing that, $1.2 trillion in mandatory across-the-board cuts, split between defense and non-defense spending, would kick in. Cuts to defense and Medicare were intended to hasten everyone's ardor for the committee process. The Medicare cuts were capped at 2% of Medicare costs, and were directed at insurers and health care providers, rather than beneficiaries.

Total discretionary spending would be reduced by $7 billion in 2012, with half coming out of national security. Like many a pro-football player's contract, the cuts were heavily back-end loaded.

In a bow to McConnell's earlier plan, lawmakers would vote against the debt ceiling hikes, and Obama would veto the disapprovals.

None of which resembled the balanced combination of spending cuts and revenue reforms the President touted and 68% of Americans favored.

Regardless, Obama would get, albeit in two bites, his $2.4 trillion debt ceiling hike, presumably enough to get him past the 2012 elections.

Whether this was a good deal, or whether it would even survive a vote in the House of Representatives, was fairly unclear to everyone involved. Tea Party enthusiasts were unhappy the deal didn't include the guarantee of a balanced budget amendment being sent to the states, didn't cut the deficit by the $6 trillion they wanted, and didn't include a single slogan, jingle, pledge or catchy tagline. Democrats were unhappy the deal didn't include any revenue reforms, and cut Medicare, although House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) managed to prevent a dreaded change to Social Security's cost of living adjustment formula.

(Incidentally, the current, more favorable COLA hadn't raised seniors' Social Security checks in two years, because the plunging price of giant-screen flat panel TVs had managed to offset rising fuel, food, drug and home heating costs.)

All of which made everyone with a set of convictions on either side of the tennis court particularly miffed, a tendency the President had repeatedly begun to demonstrate.

A Democratic primary challenge could help address the ambivalence under the donkey banner. It would let voters kick the tires again, and consider whether the shiny new conveyance they signed up for four years before was really a clunker, or whether it just needed a new coat of clear-coat polymer to shine up the paint.

And, should the President's approval continue to spiral earthward, it would position Democrats with a candidate who owned considerably less baggage.

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