Publisher's Note — February 17, 2010, 12:13 pm

Rattle Obama with Primary Challenger

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the February 17, 2010 Providence Journal.

So you’re disillusioned with Obama. So you watched The Who play “Won’t Get Fooled Again” during the Super Bowl. So you’re mad, and you’d like to do something about it.

Well, don’t sit around being a whiny liberal, the kind of softy Rahm Emanuel likes to insult. Don’t retreat into cynicism, either, or such pointless barroom analysis as “All politicians are alike” and “The big money runs everything.”

No, do something constructive— something, moreover, that RahmObama will clearly understand. Give Obama a primary.

That’s what they do in Cook County, Ill., where Barack, Rahm, and I come from. In Chicago, when you betray the boss, or, though it is less often a priority, you betray the people, suddenly your safe seat on the Chicago City Council, in the Illinois Legislature or in the U.S. House or Senate, isn’t so safe anymore. Seemingly out of nowhere comes a well-financed, reasonably articulate opponent from your own party with lots of ammunition to attack your lousy record.

If you feel betrayed by Obama’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan and mercenary forces in Iraq; by seeing him kowtow to Wall Street and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein; by his plan to donate 30 million taxpayer-subsidized policies to the health-insurance business, and you wonder why Guantánamo and NAFTA are still open for business, then it’s not too early to start thinking about 2012 and who might run against the incumbent now stationed in the White House.

Granted, this is not an easy task for an ordinary citizen. Most primary challenges are orchestrated by party bosses, not outraged Tea Party types, to punish disobedient and obstreperous underlings. Obama himself was the instrument of one such reprisal when he challenged incumbent U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in the 2000 Democratic primary. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported that Obama was “prodded by the Daley Machine” into running, “which led him into his only big political blunder,” since Rush beat him badly. Ignatius is only half right: Obama was, in fact, proving his value to the machine by helping to punish Rush for conducting a primary challenge for mayor in 1999 against the incumbent, Richard M. Daley. By running at all — while knowing that he would probably lose — Obama earned the gratitude of the machine and boosted his career. And he effectively delivered Daley’s warning to Rush: Don’t ever try that again.

But primary challenges can have nobler purposes. For my generation, the greatest was Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 New Hampshire run against President Lyndon Johnson — mainly to protest the war in Vietnam — which heavily influenced Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election. Technically, McCarthy lost: He got 42 percent of the popular vote against 49 percent for the president’s still unofficial write-in candidacy. However, that was enough to force a genuine national debate on the war and Johnson’s decision not to run again. Similar to Obama’s primary challenge to Rush, McCarthy won by losing, although he didn’t get the nomination.

The same tactic, if not nobility, applies to Republicans. In 1992, Pat Buchanan “won” the New Hampshire primary with 40 percent, compared with President George H.W. Bush’s 58 percent. With no real hope of winning his party’s nomination (unlike Gene McCarthy), Buchanan was nevertheless determined to drive Bush from office. His protest candidacy helped do that by weakening Bush before the general election.

Of course, primary challenges needn’t be reserved for epoch-making presidential elections. When liberal friends bitterly complained to me about Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D.-Vt.) 2005 Judiciary Committee vote to approve John Roberts’s nomination as chief justice, I suggested that they recruit a candidate in Vermont to jam up Leahy’s usually automatic re-election. Now that Roberts has steered the country to even greater domination by corporations in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, why not mount a serious liberal primary challenge to protest Leahy’s terrible decision? Even if Vermonters renominate him next Sept. 14, a chastened Leahy might think twice during, say, a Sarah Palin administration, about supporting another right-wing Supreme Court nominee. He might even filibuster!

So who is the best person to take on Obama? My first choice would be a rejuvenated Howard Dean, who might be the only hope left for the cause of liberal reform, at least in my lifetime. After scaring the wits out of the party’s Iraq-compromised establishment in 2004 with his anti-war and pro-small-donation crusade, Dean performed the thankless task of chairing the Democratic National Committee in some of its dark years. In that post, he compromised himself again and again in the interest of party unity and beating the Republicans in 2008. This involved the deeply unpleasant task of collaboration with the violent-tempered Emanuel, as well as with New York Senator Charles Schumer (another anti-reform Democrat), who was chairman of the party’s Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Yet for all his hard work, Dean was rewarded by being passed over for the new Cabinet and was not invited to continue running the DNC. What’s more, in an ugly bit of symbolism, RahmObama named as press secretary Robert Gibbs, who was spokesman for the Democratic 527 committee whose sleazy advertising contributed to killing off Dean in the Iowa caucuses six years ago.

Already detested by Emanuel (our new Dick Cheney), Dean has more recently committed the cardinal sin of party disloyalty by openly denouncing Obama’s (and Max Baucus’s and Joe Lieberman’s) attempt to transfer huge amounts of taxpayer money to Wellpoint and other big insurance companies. So what’s he got to lose, except maybe an election? The country, on the other hand, might have much to gain. And Obama could relearn an important lesson about politics, and the consequences of betrayal.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note July 7, 2016, 6:26 pm

A Night of Political Theater

“In the next four months, Hillary Clinton will be promoted as a female pioneer. But she’ll also be ridiculed as a caricature of feminine success, a woman who owes everything to her husband and is at the same time constantly humiliated in the light of his past infidelities.”

Publisher's Note June 8, 2016, 2:31 pm

The Leftist Line

The French left self-destructs

Publisher's Note May 4, 2016, 12:33 pm

The Clinton Cartel

Journalists are doing the Clintons’ dirty work for them and their machine.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Estimated temperature of Hell, according to two Spanish physicists ‘ interpretation of the Bible:

832°F

The ecosystems around Chernobyl, Ukraine, are now healthier than they were before the nuclear disaster, though radiation levels are still too high for human habitation.

A TSA agent in Seattle was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of women in the airport, a Maryland police officer was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of an off-duty colleague, and the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that taking up-skirt photos is legal in the state.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today