About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« Why the Filibuster Is More Essential Now Than Ever | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | The Real Barack Obama »

Could Howard Dean Primary Barack Obama?

Matt Bai recently penned a somewhat confused essay that attempts to argue that Obama is a bona fide progressive, but not really a populist (which apparently for Bai comes down to little more than differences in tone). Yet in this piece he inserts an intriguing aside.

A year into Obama's presidency, it is no longer inconceivable, if still unlikely, that he could face a challenge within his own party in 2012, especially if Democrats suffer sizable losses next November. (When Howard Dean made a point of trying to scuttle health care reform altogether, was he simply trying to get a better bill, or was he setting himself up as a populist insurgent?)

The tossaway quality of these lines makes them so interesting. It's as if this is what people are talking about. Are they? I don't really run in the same circles as writers from the New York Times Magazine, so I don't have a clue. Yet I did notice that Politico has a generally sympathetic entry on "The resurrection of Howard Dean." It also mentions a possible 2012 challenge of the President. Just as you need two data points to have a trend, you need two MSM articles to have a meme!

So, it's worth asking on this cold January day: could Howard Dean primary Barack Obama?

Of course he could, but nobody should expect him to topple the President. If Theodore Roosevelt couldn't successfully primary Howard Taft in 1912, what hope does any insurgent have, especially one who lost out to John Kerry?

Now, the nomination battle has changed quite a bit in the 98 years since Teddy took on the Big Lub, but the following is most definitely true. Incumbent presidents who were elected to office were often denied their party's re-nomination in the 19th century (the first loser being the drunk, incompetent Franklin Pierce in 1856), but it is a very rare occurrence these days. And by rare I mean it hasn't happened in over a century.

The power of selecting the next nominee has generally fallen to the people - via the primaries and caucuses - but make no mistake: the party establishment still has a dominant role, and an incumbent President almost always has the establishment on his side. That makes him near impossible to defeat - you have to go back to the corruption of the Gilded Age or the political breakdown of the antebellum years to find incumbents who couldn't secure the support of the insiders whose jobs depend on the incumbent's continued success.

That's not to say Dean (or somebody) wouldn't try. It's just to say that if he has any sense in his head, his goal wouldn't be to become the 45th President. When Pat Buchanan took on George H.W. Bush in 1992, I doubt his purpose was actually to become the next President. More likely, it was about making public the dissatisfaction a faction within the Republican Party was feeling by 1992.

That points to what makes these primary contests so noteworthy: they are more a symptom of failure than a cause. If a President cannot lock down all the major parts of his own party, and instead must slug it out in a primary - it's a sign that he's going to have trouble building a majority coalition in the fall. Taft, Carter, and Bush all lost their general election contests after beating back big time challenges for the nomination. So did Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's stand-in in 1968, after Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy launched insurgent candidacies for the White House.

This is probably why we're seeing talk about Dean about the moment: many progressives are frustrated with the course of the Obama administration to date. There are hairline fractures in the Obama coalition. It's improbable that progressives would ever seriously challenge its structural foundations. They are also the most partisan Democrats, and thus would never aid the Republicans. But if Obama should find his job approval ratings in Carter or Bush territory come mid-2011, i.e. he's doomed anyway, a progressive candidate like Dean could conceivably challenge him.

I'd say the probability of Obama having to face a serious challenge from Howard Dean or anybody in 2012 are about as good as the probability that the Pittsburgh Pirates will have a winning season by then. Put it in the 5-10% range.

Follow me now on Twitter!

-Jay Cost