There’s been a lot of talk about a 2012 presidential primary challenger on the left shoals of the blogosphere. There’s even been an announcement by the Progressive caucus of the California Democratic party stating that they are exploring the option. Most of this talk seems to be driven by discontent over how much ground Democrats have given to Republicans in the last 8 months or so.
A few genuinely do want to replace the President, but many merely want to see the left’s ideals and concerns hashed out in the nationally public forum a primary would provide, or they want to see if such a debate would pull President Obama to the left on certain issues. While these latter motives are constructive, there are also risks in a primary challenge or even advocating for one that could outweigh the benefits.
Calls for a presidential primary challenger seem to fall into common messaging traps that don’t help progressives on the whole. The most obvious of these is the “blame the President” mindset, namely the incorrect line of thinking that causes incumbent parties to lose when the economy’s bad and win when the economy’s good, regardless of whether their policies actually had an impact on the economy’s condition.
Many of those who rail against the President for not accomplishing things no one could have accomplished in this political climate seem to be thinking this way. The irony is that Republican leaders are looking to leverage this very line of thinking into votes in 2012. Sticking to the same mindset and tactic as one’s opponents is no way to win, and so it would be better to focus less on what President Obama hasn’t done and more on what has been done to make Congress dysfunctional, namely the radicalization of the right.
Closely related to this is how undue focus on the President distracts from what is most important to moving forward: Congress. Spreading the myth that the President can make everything better won’t change the limitations that a more liberal President would face when coupled with a divided or Republican Congress. On the other hand, if enough progressives were elected to Congress, they could exert enough pressure to make Obama have to compromise with them for a change. Congress is the front where progressives have lost ground, and Congress is where they must carry the day in order to see real change.
All this is not to say that primary challenges are always detrimental to a cause. There’s an excellent diary over on DailyKos that highlights the benefits of primary challenges, particularly in congressional races. In the upcoming presidential race, however, it is important to be careful, because the prevailing winds of economics and superficially informed public opinion will not work in the Democrats’ favor. To avoid strengthening the conservative arsenal, progressives must work hard to maintain focus on the races that will truly decide the future, and many of these are in Congress.