Will Liberals Challenge Obama Amid the Snows of New Hampshire?


Walter Shapiro

Senior Correspondent
Liberal Democrats are, by nature and history, a perpetually disappointed voting bloc. They are either consigned to wail in the political wilderness (the Bush years and the Reagan years) or else the fruits of victory quickly sour on their tongues (the triangulating Bill Clinton).
Liberal malaise again afflicts the body politic. According to a recent poll conducted by the Marist Institute for McClatchy News, Obama's approval rating among Democrats has fallen to 74 percent and to 69 percent among liberals. House Democrats are still seething over Obama's tax-cut compromise with congressional Republicans. Howard Dean just sent out a fund-raising letter for Democracy for America praising fellow Vermonter Bernie Sanders for his one-man Senate filibuster against the tax deal: "Bernie Sanders didn't back down against long odds – he had the backbone to stand up and fight for what's right." That is, of course, in contrast to Barack Obama the Trimmer.
These straws in the wind – suggestive rather than conclusive – prompted me to refresh my memories of the grassroots uprising that shaped the modern Democratic Party. This seismic event was neither Howard Dean's antiwar insurgency in 2004 nor even Ted Kennedy's challenge to incumbent President Jimmy Carter in the primaries.
Instead, what today's Democratic restiveness reminds me of is the summer of 1967, when liberal organizer (and later Long Island congressman) Allard Lowenstein tried to find someone – anyone – to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the nomination. Lowenstein and his youthful allies importuned all the leading antiwar senators (Robert Kennedy, George McGovern and Frank Church) before to everyone's amazement the mercurial and elusive Eugene McCarthy volunteered for this quixotic crusade.
The parallels are not exact – history never repeats itself as either farce or tragedy. There is no galvanizing single issue like the Vietnam War. Despite his legislative victories and 1964 landslide, Lyndon Johnson remained an accidental president to many Democrats, the ungainly heir to that which rightly belonged to John Kennedy. Barack Obama, in contrast, electrified Democrats (even many Hillary Clinton supporters) as he romped home with nearly 70 million votes.
But what does feel similar is the combination of growing buyer's remorse among liberals and the fatalistic certainty that Obama will be re-nominated without serious challenge. In their epic political narrative, "American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968," three British journalists (Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson and Bruce Page) write, "There were a few who had realized that the emperor had no clothes . . . Such sentiments, however, swam vainly against the tide of 'expert' opinion."
Barring an economic collapse that makes the September 2008 financial meltdown look like the Good Old Days, Obama cannot be deprived of the nomination. The arithmetic simply does not work for any challenger – including (as unlikely as it seems) Hillary Clinton. The combination of the institutional power of a sitting president, the president's overwhelming support among African-American voters and Democratic memories of the tragic consequences of bitter divisiveness (1968, 1972 and 1980) make a replay of the 50-state struggle of 2008 seem ludicrous. The 2012 Democratic nomination belongs to Barack Obama -- assuming he wants it.
But the same thing was true in 1968: Lyndon Johnson would have been – almost unquestionably – the Democratic nominee had he taken the fight all the way to the Chicago Convention. In those days, primaries were rare and many convention delegates had been selected before McCarthy (let alone Bobby Kennedy) had even entered the race. What drove LBJ out of the race was the specter not of defeat but of embarrassment. McCarthy came within 230 votes (including his write-in votes on the GOP line) of outpolling Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Facing actual humiliating defeat in the Wisconsin primary, Lyndon Johnson made the most stunning announcement in the last half century of presidential politics: "I will not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
If liberals are serious (unlikely) about limiting Obama to one term in the White House, there is probably only one way to do it. And that is to take advantage – as Gene McCarthy did – of the snows of New Hampshire and the affinity of voters in the first primary state to embrace political dreamers. This is the ideal electorate for any putative challenge to Obama: In 2008, according to exit polls, New Hampshire Democratic primary voters were overwhelming white (95 percent), well-educated (81 percent had attended college), affluent (68 percent had family incomes of more than $50,000) and liberal (56 percent).
What it would take is a Democrat far more serious than fringe candidates Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, who collectively won less than 2 percent of the 2008 New Hampshire primary vote. That mythical Democrat (call him Gene McCarthy Reborn so we don't get caught up in premature name games) should announce at the outset that he is only challenging President Obama in a single state because he does not want to fracture the Democratic Party.
McCarthy Reborn's message would combine praise for the president's accomplishments (health-care reform, saving America from another Great Depression) with the sad conclusion that Obama does not have the skills (natural warmth, strategic vision and political moxie) to be a successful president even if he were re-elected. Dusting off an old Vietnam-era slogan, McCarthy Reborn would urge Obama to "declare victory and go home." And then he would ask the Democrats and independents of New Hampshire to endorse this message to Obama with their votes on primary day.
It takes a rare political leader to renounce ambition – and the belief that all problems can be solved if only the voters would give him another term. But Barack Obama, who gives off no signs these days that he is a Happy Warrior in the White House, is not a typical anything. Sooner or later, Democratic liberals, seemingly dissatisfied with the president that they helped put in the White House, have to make a decision about 2012. Will they take the easy route of grousing to pollsters and in the Democratic caucus – or will they gamble that a miracle can again happen amid the snows of New Hampshire?