Here’s the irony of the season: Republicans, Barack Obama’s allies in the winter tax battle, are lining up to run against the president. Democrats, inflamed by the president’s apostasy in the tax fight, are sitting back. Politics is a strange endeavor, defying the laws of psychology and physics.
Right now, the talk — mostly in newspaper columns, political blogs and cable shows hardly anyone watches — that the president might face a primary challenge from the left remains just that. No Democratic presidential candidate walks the frigid streets of Des Moines, no Obama critic is being photographed against a White Mountains backdrop in New Hampshire.
Challenges to White House incumbents aren’t as rare as the folklore suggests — five of the six presidents who served between 1968 and 1992 faced insurrections — but the prospects remain daunting, perhaps especially so in 2012.
Stage is set
All the elements are present, though. The president’s approval ratings are low. Unemployment is stubbornly high. The world seems unsettled.
The president’s liberal allies are in rebellion. They wonder why they supported him two years ago and wonder how enthusiastic they will be for him two years from now. They see that the bully pulpit has been moved in the White House, shifted from stage left to the center. No one — except perhaps House Speaker Nancy D. Pelosi, a symbol of the Democratic defeats last month — is carrying the progressive flag on the national level.
That, in reverse, is pretty close to the combination that drew conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan into a Republican nomination challenge against President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Indeed, two years before the election, Bush conspired with Democrats on a tax bill that prompted just as much outrage on the right as Obama’s partnership with GOP leaders this month did on the left.
On the surface there are no barriers to entry for a primary challenge against a sitting president. All a candidate need do is deliver a $1,000 check to the New Hampshire secretary of state on the second floor of the State House in Concord, and in an instant there is press coverage, public attention, even a measure of prestige.
But it’s not as easy as that, as Buchanan discovered.
“You’ve really got to believe that a challenge that is certainly going to wound the president — and that may wound him so badly he might not win the general election — is a risk worth taking,” says Buchanan, a onetime aide to Richard M. Nixon, who himself faced two primary challengers in 1972. “It is not a risk easily taken. If you don’t beat the president you’re pretty well finished in your party, especially if your president loses. This costs you an awful lot of friends, maybe your future in your party, because there is no coming back from a decision like that. Nixon once told me that you should never strike a king without killing him.”
Nixon’s remark speaks to the advantages that incumbent presidents enjoy: the power to set the agenda, to win free news coverage in the most dramatic or evocative settings. These are formidable advantages in general elections, but especially in nomination struggles, for the president ordinarily controls the party apparatus and can call on the support and activism of party loyalists.
Challenge is challenging
Again, Buchanan provides insight:
“You’ll be an outsider day in and day out, and you’ll attract attention only because of the damage you can do to the president. You have to believe that what you are doing is right. It is not a frivolous matter. You throw yourself up against the establishment, which will use every weapon, every tool, every trick they’ve got, to destroy you. The alienation from the president, if he is a friend of yours, as George Herbert Walker Bush was of mine, is permanent, especially if he loses.”
Buchanan added: “If the president is part of a dynasty, it’s a real problem.”
At least one party challenger was forgiven, his sin forgotten.
Ronald Reagan ran against Gerald R. Ford in 1976 and was defeated, but he was able to capture the GOP nomination four years later and even flirted with the innovative idea of putting Ford on his ticket for the campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1980. That year, Carter faced a liberal insurgency led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose effort to unseat the president failed but nonetheless softened up Carter for the Reagan campaign in the general election.
Twice, nomination challenges contributed to presidents’ decisions not to seek another term, though in both cases (Harry S Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson) the president had assumed office after the death of his predecessor.
Roosevelt vs. Taft
The most dramatic challenge against a sitting president occurred a century ago, when former President Theodore Roosevelt sought to wrest the Republican presidential nomination away from his protege, William Howard Taft. He failed for all the usual reasons — party loyalists are, above all, loyal — but Roosevelt’s defeat at the Chicago convention led to an independent campaign in the fall.
In “Colonel Roosevelt,” his new biography of the post-presidential TR, Edmund Morris sketches a contender who was, in his own words, “very uncertain” about whether to pursue the presidency. “But the urgency of the progressives who looked to him for leadership,” Morris writes, “had finally convinced him that he had to rescue the reform program so disastrously mismanaged by President Taft.”
Roosevelt accomplished half his purpose. He helped defeat Taft, who finished third. But he was unable to defeat Gov. Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey, who went on to serve two terms as president and to frustrate Roosevelt at many turns.
All of this is the sort of history that primary challengers know. So it is unlikely but possible that Obama will have a second chance to win a contested New Hampshire primary, where he lost in 2008 to Hillary Rodham Clinton. If he does, it will be a victory at great cost, and not only to his competitor.