The Blog

Empty Threats from the Left

Don't expect them to abandon Barack Obama.

1:31 PM, Dec 8, 2010 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Liberals are not pleased with President Obama's tax deal with congressional Republicans. There have been multiple suggestions that he risks a liberal revolt, and that he could wind up like Jimmy Carter. Matt Bai of the New York Times writes:

President Obama’s compromise with Republicans on extending tax cuts for the wealthy, which his self-described progressive critics see as a profound betrayal, is bound to intensify a debate that has been bubbling up on liberal blogs and e-mail lists in recent weeks — whether or not the president who embodied “hope and change” in 2008 should face a primary challenge in 2012.

The idea seems to have little momentum for now, not least because there isn’t an obvious candidate, and because such a challenge would seem to have about as much chance of success as, say, a reality show about David Hasselhoff. That a primary is being openly discussed, though, reflects how fully Mr. Obama’s relationship with his party’s liberal activists has ruptured and the considerable confusion on the left over what to do about it.

I argued earlier in the week that Obama could not, practically speaking, be primaried. But what, if anything, could the left do to rebuke Obama for his heresy on taxes?

The answer: zip, zilch, nada. They have no tools in their toolbox on this one. Not only will the left not primary the president, but when push comes to shove they will support him as enthusiastically as they ever have. 

In 1960, John F. Kennedy wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination on the first ballot at the convention in Los Angeles, but he had a challenge: whom would he select for the vice presidency? Kennedy's electoral strategy that year was going to be quite unlike Truman's in 1948. His plan was to focus on the big industrial states with plenty of electoral votes -- Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania. He expected the rural states in the Midwest and Mountain West to go for Richard Nixon, so he planned to emphasize states with big urban centers. But any way he did the math, he always ended up needing one state that didn't seem to be in the bag: Texas. The Lone Star State had been wobbly for the Democrats for some time. Texas Democrats had tried to stage a mini-revolt against FDR in 1944, and it had gone for Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 (and, just as worrisome for Kennedy, for Herbert Hoover against Catholic Al Smith in 1928). With JFK at the top of the ticket in 1960, Republican Richard Nixon stood a real shot in Texas. 

The solution Kennedy chose was to put Lyndon Johnson of Texas -- Senate majority leader and runner-up in the presidential battle -- in the vice presidential slot. But organized labor was apoplectic over this decision. LBJ had voted for the reviled Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which had substantially curtailed the ability of organized labor to coordinate activities across states and industries. When labor leaders found out about JFK's decision, they read Kennedy the riot act. But ultimately, not only did they assent to LBJ, they worked their tails off for the ticket in the general election campaign. All that smoke and no fire. Why? Why didn't labor leave the Democratic coalition that year, in protest of the seemingly anti-union LBJ?

Three words: President Richard Nixon. As much as labor might have disliked LBJ's vote on Taft-Hartley, they were utterly terrified of the prospect of a Nixon presidency. So, they jumped on board. In the long run, the move paid off, since Kennedy signed an executive order that gave labor collective bargaining rights with the federal government, and today public sector labor is even larger than private sector labor.

Liberals are understandably grinding their teeth right now over Obama's tax cut deal. They are angry that he is not as liberal as they thought he was, or at least that he is not as willing to fight for his liberal beliefs as they would like. But when push comes to shove, they will be there full tilt for the president because they will detest whomever the Republicans nominate. One cannot win the presidential nomination in the conservative-dominated Republican Party without thoroughly antagonizing American liberals. Look, for instance, at how the liberals came to hate John McCain, who was much more conciliatory than whomever the Grand Old Party will nominate in 2012. All of the well-known Republican candidates (Huckabee, Romney, Palin) already bother the liberals, and if a currently lesser-known candidate wins the nomination, the left will come to despise him or her with all the intensity they can muster. 

And if hatred of the GOP will not be enough, watch Team Obama exploit the memory of the 2000 presidential election.  Al Gore would have won that election were it not for the candidacy of Ralph Nader, who ran as well as he did because of a belief among some liberals that there was no real difference between Democrats and Republicans. The Clinton administration looked too similar to the Bush 41 administration for those liberals, and many of them could not understand why they should support the heir to Clinton over the heir to Bush. Nader's 2.7 percent of the vote made the difference in Florida and New Hampshire, and swung the presidency to George W. Bush. It was just 10 years ago that the left learned that there was a dime's worth of difference between the two parties, and there is no way the Obama campaign will let them forget it. 

The left is going to do here exactly what it did with the public option during the health care debate. It is going to gripe about how Obama has been a massive disappointment, then dutifully fall into line behind him. By Election Day 2012 all of the liberals talking up a primary challenge today will see the choice on the ballot as though it is the Battle of Armmageddon, with President Obama valiantly defending the forces of good.  If he wins, they'll weep with joy.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers