By Molly K. Hooper - 09/15/11 09:15 AM EDT
Some frustrated Democrats in Congress are saying that a primary challenge to President Obama would be a good thing, but others maintain it would only help the GOP.
Rep. Peter DeFazio said a primary would “push the president and his advisers a bit … to give us back the candidate we had three years ago.”
“It’s a common refrain, and it’s certainly common in my district among Democrats [because] they want the guy back that they voted for,” DeFazio said.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) told The Hill a challenge “would be healthy for the party.” The two-time presidential hopeful added that he will not be running against Obama; Kucinich announced this week that he will seek reelection in 2012, setting up a showdown with Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio).
Other liberals in the House claim that a primary challenge would be counterproductive.
The co-chairmen of the House Progressive Caucus, Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), said Obama is the best candidate for the Democratic Party next year.
Ellison said a primary opponent would “undermine our unity, and we need everybody in the same boat.”
Grijalva echoed that sentiment, saying “I don’t think a primary would be healthy for the party nor our prospects in 2012.”
History is on Ellison and Grijalva’s side. The last three incumbent presidents to lose reelection — Presidents Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush — faced competitive primaries. Presidents Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush cleared the field, and subsequently won second terms. Some analysts believe that former Sen. Bill Bradley’s (D-N.J.) primary challenge to Vice President Gore in 2000 helped George W. Bush become president.
There was a sense of Democratic unity last week after Obama delivered his jobs address to Congress. However, details of the plan have since sparked some public resistance from Democrats on Capitol Hill, most notably his effort to extend the payroll tax holiday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Senate Democrats and is a critic of Obama’s payroll tax cut extension, has recently spoken out in favor of a primary challenge.
In July, Sanders called Obama “weak” in dealing with Republicans, adding: “I think it would be a good idea if President Obama faced some primary opposition.”
Consumer activist and former presidential contender Ralph Nader is looking to recruit a liberal to run against Obama, whose approval ratings have hit record lows.
Nader, in an interview with The Hill earlier this summer, said that “it’s almost 100 percent sure there’s going to be a primary challenge to Obama from somebody or somebodies — plural — in some states.”
Since Republicans won control of the House in 2010, many congressional Democrats have grown increasingly frustrated with Obama for what they see as a shift to the right. That exasperation has led to calls within liberal circles to have a primary challenger who would force Obama to refocus on his base support.
“I’d love to have that candidate back. I think it would be helpful,” DeFazio said, noting that he doesn’t have a challenger in mind.
But a liberal House lawmaker, who requested anonymity, does — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I would be interested in seeing that. She’s the only one who could really crystallize the issues,” the Democratic member said.
If Clinton won the primary, not only could she get elected in a general election, the lawmaker said, “she could do the job and hopefully lead us to a better place.”
Clinton, who ran against Obama for the White House in 2008, has said she will never run for president again.
Grijalva warned that the White House needs to boost its efforts of reaching out to disenchanted members of the Democratic Party. “I hope there’s different movement from the campaign and the White House to respond to some of the base concerns, which is what a lot of this discussion of a primary is coming from. … I hope they realize that there’s discontent there and they’ve got to deal with it,” Grijalva said.
Former Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) nixed the idea of a presidential primary because she says Obama is as left-leaning as the country can handle.
“I think Barack Obama is probably about as centrist and progressive as this country will allow,” said Woolsey, who has lambasted the White House’s policy on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Liberal Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) declined to share his opinion on whether a primary would be healthy for the party, asserting the notion is a non-starter.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
Rutgers political science professor Ross Baker said a primary would not compel Obama to take concerns of the progressives more seriously.
Instead, it would drain him of resources to wage what is expected to be a bruising general-election campaign, he said.
Regardless, Baker said progressives still have leverage: They could stay home on Election Day.
“Withdrawal by the base is a serious threat, and is taken seriously [by Obama political advisers] David Axelrod and David Plouffe,” Baker said. “But what I think keeps them up at night, tossing in bed, is the fact that these very people who served as the launching pad for Obama in 2008 are just not going to be around.”