To: 2016 White House Candidates (Democrats Only)
Subject: How to Break with President Obama
Since you have time to read an unsolicited memo with such a provocative subject line, it is safe to assume that your name is not Hillary or Joe.
That’s good because I am not writing for the establishment types—Clinton and Biden—who are convinced that the nomination is rightfully theirs if only they choose to run. Instead, this advice is aimed at the long shots, the crazed gamblers, and the hell-with-the-odds dreamers. You are the ones who fantasize about becoming the Gene McCarthy, the Gary Hart, the Howard Dean, and the Barack Obama of 2016.
Let me start with the year 1960. Do you know its significance beyond the Kennedy-Nixon debates? It was the last time that any presidential candidate (incumbent presidents aside) was handed the nomination rather than having to fight for it. And even in 1960 Richard Nixon had to bow and scrape before Nelson Rockefeller to head off a primary challenge.
What this means is that you have a chance no matter how daunting the polls or lopsided the potential fund-raising gap. Someone is going to be embraced by grassroots Democratic activists as the different-drummer alternative—and it could easily be you. But to be anointed THE CHALLENGER with capital letters, you have to be peddling more than the Maryland Miracle, the Colorado Comeback, the Albany Apotheosis or an uplifting personal story about how you grew up on a played-out rutabaga farm as the child of alcoholic parents.
To succeed, you have to anticipate the answer to a very tricky question: On the eve of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, what aspects of the Obama presidency will have angered, exasperated or disappointed loyal Democrats? The answer explains whom you will become—the candidate who convincingly promises to save the Democrats from Obama’s deficiencies.
At this point, you are probably mounting the obvious counter-argument: “Shouldn’t I tightly wrap myself around Obama? His approval rate among Democrats is about 80 percent. It would be suicidal to criticize a president that popular.”
History, though, suggests that Obama will not always have approval ratings as high as temperatures after global warming. Second terms are inevitably sad—FDR with court packing and a second recession; Harry Truman with scandals and Korea; LBJ with Vietnam; Bill Clinton with impeachment.
Maybe Obama will avoid the second-term curse, though the evidence so far isn’t promising. But if Obama somehow is still wildly popular at the time of the Iowa caucuses, then you as an outsider probably won’t stand a chance. If Democrats in 2016 crave continuity, if they long for a third Obama term in the White House, then, frankly, you will be wasting your time visiting all 99 Iowa counties and begging strangers for seed money. As a candidate unconnected to the Obama administration, your only realistic hope is to capitalize on Democratic disappointment with the president’s second term.
Let me deal with your other obvious objection: “Why can’t I just wait to see how the president’s second term plays out before I say anything that might antagonize Obama loyalists? Shouldn’t I just watch the polls until 2015?”
If you wait until late 2015 to criticize part of the president’s record, your dissent will come across as craven rather than courageous. Think of Hillary Clinton’s awkwardly distancing of herself from the Iraq War in 2008, even though Democratic primary voters knew that she had voted for it in the Senate. Howard Dean rose from nowhere in mid-2003 because he was the only major Democrat running who had been unalterably opposed to the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. Sometimes in presidential politics, when matters more than whether and right from the start trumps being correct right now.
That’s why 2013 is a perfect time to express skepticism about portions of the Obama record. If you say something now with the right tone, it will be perceived as a sincere expression of deep conviction. The longer you wait, the more poll-tested and political your critiques of Obama will be regarded.
Please understand, I am not recommending that you go on Fox News and emulate Karl Rove. I am not suggesting that you start giving mournful speeches about the tragedy of godless, left-wing libertines driving Michele Bachmann out of Congress. Nor do you have to arrange a lunch with Donald Trump to brandish a certified copy of your birth certificate.
Instead, any criticisms of Obama should be delivered in a sympathetic but sorrowful tone. If possible, stress how the Republicans put Obama in a difficult position, but that, under similar circumstances, you would have made different decisions. Treat errant Cabinet members like Eric Holder as if they got their jobs by heredity or by winning the Powerball lottery. And try to ground your critiques of the president in Democratic orthodoxy.
Below are some Obama policies that deserve Democratic dissent on their merits and may trouble activists when the 2016 presidential season rolls around:
NSA Phone Monitoring and Data Mining: Defenders of civil liberties are sadly asking themselves, “If we can’t trust Obama, who said all the right things on these issues in 2008, who can we trust?” If you plan on courting this wing of the Democratic Party in 2016, you must do more than utter a few sentence of blather about “better congressional oversight.” Right now, you should start making the case—and it’s not an easy one—why you would always cleave to your principles, even if handed the keys to the Oval Office.
Targeting the Press: Feel free to publicly blame overzealous prosecutors working for Eric Holder for the vacuum-cleaner sweep of AP phone records and the legal argument that a Fox News reporter might be a co-conspirator under the Espionage Act. But, to be brutally honest in private, we all know that the roots of the problem are Obama’s embrace of many get-tough aspects of Bush national security policy.
The Drone War: This may fade as an issue after Obama’s recent speech at the National Defense University. But the policy of carrying out airborne assassinations without risking American casualties may prove irresistible to the president in the years ahead. If you are going to speak out on the issue, it would be a good idea to begin your remarks by harking back to the Church Committee. That mid-1970s Senate investigation, named after its Democratic chairman Frank Church, highlighted the folly and the blowback risks of two decades of CIA assassination plots.
Guantanamo: Of course, Republican grandstanding on national security is partly to blame here. But Obama has also been complicit in waiting six months after his reelection to begin the lengthy process of using his legal powers to repatriate Guantanamo prisoners to Yemen.
I sense that, by now, you are thinking, “Most voters don’t care about national-security issues in peacetime.” But, at the moment, you’re not concerned with most voters—your target audience is the much smaller universe of Democratic activists in states like Iowa. And they do care about Guantanamo, drones, and leak investigations running amok.
The Sequester: This may prove to be the most insidious policy idea to come out of the Obama White House. By grotesquely miscalculating GOP resistance to Pentagon cuts (take a bow, Jack Lew), the administration is now stuck with an across-the-board evisceration of the domestic discretionary budget. And that money is never coming back during the Obama presidency, barring a miraculous Democratic takeover of the House in 2014.
Campaign Reform: For the sake of brevity, let’s stipulate that Citizens United was grotesque and the Republicans are worse. But before the 2012 campaign, Obama never chose to use the government’s existing regulatory powers to rein in super PACs and partisan advocacy groups masquerading as guileless nonprofits. Now after the IRS scandal, it is impossible for Obama to do anything on the regulatory front. But, these days, the president is about as credible a campaign reformer Boss Tweed. Nothing in his second term has been as cynical as setting up the new Obama advocacy group, Organizing for Action, using the same 501(c)4 IRS loophole employed by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS.
As a 2016 maverick without the financial resources of a Hillary Clinton, you should be thinking about how to experiment with ways of using social media and micro-targeting to avoid mortgaging your soul to pay for increasingly ineffective TV ads. Remember, the less time you spend fundraising in Park Avenue living rooms, the less likely you are to be swayed by Wall Street arguments about the deficit, the future of Social Security and Medicare, and the inequities of Dodd-Frank.
Economic Growth: The 2010 electoral wipeout (and the redistricting that flowed from the GOP landslide) all but guaranteed that the Republicans would control the House for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. What that means to working (and reluctantly non-working) Americans is that for six years, the only economic stimulus would come from the Federal Reserve. At this point, there is obviously no way of telling how high the Dow will be in early 2016 or how much the supposedly out-of-control deficit will have shrunk. But sadly what is all but guaranteed is that prospects will remain bleak for the long-term unemployed and under-employed. That’s why it is time for you to dust off JFK’s memorable slogan from the 1960 campaign, “Let’s get America moving again.”
As a successful Democratic politician, you can easily find blue-chip campaign consultants who will tell you what you want to hear—that all you need to run for president in 2016 is your magnetic personality, your proven record, and a few recycled slogans about the middle class. And if you believe that malarkey (hat tip: Joe Biden), then I wouldn’t trust you to negotiate a sequester with Jack Lew.
Yes, it’s counter-intuitive to break—however gently—with a popular president of your own party. But, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s also counter-intuitive for you to think about going up in 2016 against someone like Hillary Clinton or Biden.
Running for president is not for the fainthearted. But there is a void in the Democratic Party waiting to be filled by a credible figure on Obama’s left flank. And if you don’t have the courage to fill it in 2016, trust me, someone else will.
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