ORLANDO, Fla. -- Current Beltway consensus holds that the 2012 race, like 2010, will be a referendum on the economy. But what if, instead, the war in Afghanistan, which Barack Obama has embraced, deteriorates dramatically, requiring a delay in the scheduled troop withdrawal or, worse, forces another escalation? Might Democratic anti-war sentiment -- until now a sleeper issue -- turn rebellious?
Already, national polls show a plurality (Pew) or a majority (Quinnipiac) opposed to remaining in Afghanistan, with the margins of opposition rising. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted Dec. 9-12 found that 60 percent of Americans believe that, "considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States," the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting.
The practical goal of a liberal Democratic primary challenge would be less to wrest the nomination from Obama than as a vehicle for policy transformation. That is, to rally the liberal base in forcing the president to speed departure of U.S. military forces and, in the process, pressure him back to the left on economic issues.
With early caucuses in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary, the primary schedule would favor such an effort, even one that is largely symbolic. Both are states where anti-war sentiment tends to run high, and where there are relatively few African-American Democrats, who make up the core of Obama's support.
A number of well-known Democratic names have been suggested, but all so far have demurred. So who would be crazy enough -- or just foolhardy enough -- to make a kamikaze run against Obama?
Consider outgoing Central Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, the master of the outrageous sound bite, and perhaps the most reviled member of the House. He's already appeared on at least one list of possible challengers (admittedly toward the bottom of it). On Lawrence O'Donnell's MSNBC show, "The Last Word," Grayson was coy, declining to say whether he would be willing to make a run, although he said some challenge to the president from the left would make him happy. Later he said a race would be a "distraction."
Grayson, 52, has strong anti-war credentials. He was an early, consistent and unequivocal opponent of both "war on terror" conflicts, beginning with Iraq. In 2006, the first year he ran for Congress, his vintage Cadillac sported a bumper sticker reading: "Bush Lied, People Died." As a congressman, he characterized both wars as "occupations," and he likes to say that the best way to support American troops is to bring them home -- now.
In addition, Grayson earned the affection of the Democratic base by his outspoken support on the House floor for a public option on health care; his attacks on Fox News and talk radio pundits; and, most recently, for his equally strident opposition to tax cuts for the wealthy.
Challenging a sitting Democratic president over an unpopular conflict has happened before. In 1968, the insurgent, anti-Vietnam War primary challenges by little-known Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy and, later, Sen. Robert Kennedy, drove incumbent President Lyndon Johnson from the White House, resulting in the election of Richard Nixon.
Grayson has the name recognition, a trial lawyer's instinct for the jugular and, most critically, the considerable ego required for such a quixotic run. Although a hero to Netroots Nation and the sweetheart of MSNBC, he has no political future in Florida. The departing freshman congressman was trounced in his Orlando swing district by 17 percentage points, 56-39, by Republican Daniel Webster, a conservative Christian and longtime state legislator. Thus Grayson has little to lose in making the national race, and little to do after Congress adjourns beside returning to his legal practice.
With a significant personal fortune from a '90s telecom start-up, and a lucrative Washington, D.C., law firm (successfully suing alleged Iraq war profiteers like KBR and Custer Battles), Grayson would also have the money to launch a limited national campaign. In the past, he has drawn on both sources of financial support, largely underwriting his unsuccessful 2006 and successful 2008 congressional campaigns.
However, by 2010, his prominence with the Democratic base was such that he was able to raise more than $5 million before writing any personal checks or taking out loans. He's reportedly mulling plans for a book about the future of the Democratic Party that would likely appear in the midst of the run-up to the 2012 primary season, making a run doubly attractive. Until then, he could maintain his visibility by serving as a fill-in host for MSNBC's "The Ed Show," where he has been a frequent -- almost regular -- guest.
When White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dissed Democrats' liberal base months ago, Grayson called for his ouster. Yet for a politician not heretofore known for circumspection, Grayson had been extremely careful about criticizing Obama directly. He always argued for the most liberal positions, but in the end supported the Democrats' final compromise legislation. That is, until the tax cut vote, when he joined other dissident Democrats in writing a public letter to the president and opposing the measure.
There are a number of potential downsides to a Grayson race. His quicksilver personality -- some call it erratic -- can shift in a nanosecond from witty and charming to harshly unpleasant. Also, the challenge would pit a left-wing Jew against a centrist African-American, adding yet another incendiary element to what is an increasingly volatile national relationship. Grayson has a strong pro-Israel record, and has had the local support in his congressional races of groups like AIPAC, while the Jewish community has begun to have its doubts about the Obama administration.
And, in a larger sense, a challenge -- even a marginal one -- with respectable showings in the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire and, later, the New York and California primaries raises the specter of the 1980 Democratic primary campaign of liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy, which crippled Jimmy Carter's re-election bid and led to the victory of Ronald Reagan. In 2000, Ralph Nader's shoestring, independent run cost Al Gore electoral votes in Florida, and the election. The Democratic Party would never forgive Grayson if his challenge ultimately produced a President Romney, or Huckabee, or Gingrich -- or Palin.
Ultimately, the political calculus is problematic. A credible threat by any anti-war candidate might be enough to ensure the scheduled (or expedited) U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Conversely, by isolating more extreme elements of the Democratic base in a doomed effort, the challenge could simply solidify Obama's support among moderate Democrats and the crucial independents needed to ensure his re-election in 2012.