The volume on the ongoing discussion about whether President Obama should face a primary challenge for the 2012 Democratic nomination is constantly being adjusted. When the president compromises on basic premises of progressivism, when he talks of putting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts "on the table," and sometimes when he simply seems unfocused and politically inept, the volume goes up. When the president stands strong, however, when he outlines plans for making the rich pay their fair share, when he promotes infrastructure and investment in he face of Republican intransigence, sometimes when he simply seems to "get" that there is a point where compromise becomes capitulation, the talk dies down.
After the president drew some lines in the sand last Monday, with a speech that laid out the case for genuine shared sacrifice by the wealthy and that seemed to reject the most extreme cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the "Primary Obama" volume dialed downward. As Michael Moore said on MSNBC the other day: "It doesn't take much" to renew the "hope" -- or, at least, the partisan fidelity -- that made Obama the most politically potent Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
But if the "Primary Obama" volume is turned down for the moment, the knob is still within hands reach. And there are more than a few Democrats who are only one "Super Committee" bargain away from spinning it toward "10."
Now, some of the talkers have begun to walk the walk. They're outlining a plan to run a slate of six primary "challengers" to the president, with each focusing on issues of ideological concern. The point of this initiative is not so much to displace the president as it is to move Obama and the party toward the left -- and in so doing to provide the themes and the energy to excite the Democratic base and draw new voters to the polls in 2012.
The steadiest proponent of a primary strategy has been consumer activist Ralph Nader. The former Green Party and independent presidential candidate was always encouraged to work within the Democratic Party. Now, he's doing so, not as an active candidate but as a candidate recruiter.
"Without debates by challengers inside the Democratic Party's presidential primaries, the liberal/majoritarian agenda will be muted and ignored," says Nader. "The one-man Democratic primaries will be dull, repetitive, and draining of both voter enthusiasm and real bright lines between the two parties that excite voters."
Nader is urging progressives to sign a call for anti-war, anti-corporate Democrats to mount primary and caucus campaigns to challenge Obama and the politics of compromise.
Nader is not alone.
"We need to put strong democratic pressure on President Obama in the name of poor and working people" says Dr. Cornel West, the author of Race Matters, who now teaches at Princeton University. "His administration has tilted too much toward Wall Street, we need policies that empower Main Street."
"It's time for the White House to get into the trench with organized labor and lend a hand. We know what we need, and we don't need another campaign speech," adds United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union political director Chris Townsend. "The absence of discussion or debate about the failed strategies of this administration only emboldens the corporate onslaught."
West and Townsend are among the signers of the call for primary and caucus challengers.
There is something very old and very new about what Nader and his allies are up to here. They are proposing to get Obama's attention (and that of the media and, potentially, the broader electorate) using a number of different candidates in different states -- following the old "favorite son" or "favorite daughter" model that governor's and senator used to lock up convention delegates from their states and influence platforms and presidential picks. At the same time, they are talking about linking these state-based challenges to form a national slate -- with the express agenda of prodding Obama and "reintroducing a progressive agenda back into the political discussion during the 2012 election season."
In addition to exploding what would otherwise be a "tediously-scripted convention" of the Democratic Party -- an entirely commendable pursuit -- the endorsers of the endeavor argue that their slate will assure that "the liberal/majoritarian agenda" will be respected -- and ideally embraced -- by the president and the party.
The usual arguments are being voiced against the project -- it'll divert resources from the eventual struggle with Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, it'll weaken and divide Democrats, it'll fail and make Obama even less likely to listen to the left, it'll succeed and identify Democrats as the party of the people and thus make it harder for Obama and other DC Democrats to collect checks from hedge-fund managers.
Reasonable progressives will disagree about whether Obama failings are sufficient to merit a primary challenge, about the threat such a challenge might pose to a party that is not in a strong position at this point and about the politically viability of the "slate" approach. And even some of those who have entertained the notion that Obama could use a primary push go to a default position of disdain for Nader, who a good many Democrats will never forgive for mounting Green and independent challenges in the closely competitive presidential election years of 2000 and 2004.
But, this time, Nader really is doing what his liberal critics once demanded of him -- working within the Democratic Party -- and he is doing so rather creatively. That's attracted a solid list of co-endorsers for the letter. Among the signers, in addition to West and Townsend, are Gore Vidal, Jonathan Kozol, Rabbi Michael Lerner, former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk, former Federal Communications Commission member Nicholas Johnson, former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham and dozens of others.