From the debt ceiling fiasco to the recent rescheduling of a jobs speech at the behest of Speaker Boehner, it has not been a good summer for President Obama. Like Chinese water torture, Gallup's daily tracking poll has shown a steady and unrelenting drip of bad news. He has been in and out of the high 30s for his approval, and in the low to mid-50s for his disapproval.
George W. Bush's approval rating didn't drop this low until Katrina hit. And on the economy, 71 percent of Americans disapprove of how Obama is doing his job. Even among reliably Democratic groups -- union households, women and young people -- he's now unpopular.
No one, not even the president's defenders, expect his coming jobs speech to mean anything. When the president spoke during a recent market swoon, the market dropped another 100 points. Democrats may soon have to confront an uncomfortable truth, and ask whether Obama is a suitable choice at the top of the ticket in 2012. They may then have to ask themselves if there's any way they can push him off the top of the ticket.
That these questions have not yet been asked in any serious way shows how weak the Democratic Party is as a political organization. Yet this political weakness is not inevitable, it can be changed through courage and collective action by a few party insiders smart and principled enough to understand the value of a public debate, and by activists who are courageous enough to face the real legacy of the Obama years.
Obama has ruined the Democratic Party. The 2010 wipeout was an electoral catastrophe so bad you'd have to go back to 1894 to find comparable losses. From 2008 to 2010, according to Gallup, the fastest growing demographic party label was former Democrat. Obama took over the party in 2008 with 36 percent of Americans considering themselves Democrats. Within just two years, that number had dropped to 31 percent, which tied a 22-year low.
Of course, there are many rationalizations for Obama to remain the nominee. He's faced difficult opposition. He's passed major legislation. His presidency is historic. The economy is hard to resuscitate. But all such rationalizations evade the party's responsibilities to actually choose the nominee best suited to win votes. If Obama looks unlikely to get enough votes to win, he should not get the nomination.
If would be one thing if Obama were failing because he was too close to party orthodoxy. Yet his failures have come precisely because Obama has not listened to Democratic Party voters. He continued idiotic wars, bailed out banks, ignored luminaries like Paul Krugman, and generally did whatever he could to repudiate the New Deal. The Democratic Party should be the party of pay raises and homes, but under Obama it has become the party of pay cuts and foreclosures. Getting rid of Obama as the head of the party is the first step in reverting to form.
So why isn't there a legitimate primary challenger to Obama to make this case? Forty years ago, primaries were instituted in the Democratic Party as a response to party insiders having too much influence over nominations. These reforms were implemented before the prevalence of money in politics was as extreme as it is now. At this point, primary challenges are so expensive that a serious 2012 campaign would ironically require support of party insiders for viability. The party, inflexible as it was in 1968, is perhaps even more rigid today. As a result, no candidate has stepped up to challenge Obama in a primary, even though 32 percent of Democratic voters want one.
This is an institutional crisis for Democrats. The groups that fund and organize the party -- an uneasy alliance of financiers, conservative technology interests, the telecommunications industry, healthcare industries, labor unions, feminists, elite foundations, African-American church networks, academic elites, liberals at groups like MoveOn, the ACLU and the blogosphere -- are frustrated, but not one of them has broken from the pack. In remaining silent, they give their assent to the right-wing policy framework that first George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama, cemented in place. It will be nearly impossible to dislodge such a framework without starting within the Democratic Party itself.
In other words, party inflexibility has a price. If the economy worsens going into the fall, and the president continues as he has to attempt to cut Social Security, Democrats might be facing a Carter-Reagan scenario. Reagan, at first considered a lightweight candidate, ended up winning a landslide victory that devastated the Democratic Party in 1980. Carter wasn't the only loss; many significant liberal senators, such as George McGovern, John Culver and Birch Bayh, fell that year.
Today, it's clear that certain Democratic constituency groups -- unions especially -- are on their deathbed. A reinvigoration of debate over the nature of the American workplace is desperately needed, yet labor leaders seem to prefer supplicating quietly to politicians who betray them. This is not inevitable. People can show dignity.
So what can party leaders do? History offers one model. In 1892, the Democratic Party nominated Grover Cleveland, and with sweeping majorities in both houses, Democrats had control of the federal government for the first time since before the Civil War. Then a financial crisis, plus Cleveland's stubborn allegiance to banking interests, turned his presidency into a catastrophe for Democrats.
When taking state candidates into account, the 1894 midterm elections were comparable to the 2010 wipeout; Cleveland was disliked so ardently that party leaders pushed him out of running for reelection. Instead the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, who introduced many populist themes into the party and began the ideological transformation that would culminate with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.
History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. If a few of the key constituency groups in the Democratic Party publicly wondered whether Obama should run for reelection, rumblings would start. Some organized constituency groups -- say some components of the AFL-CIO -- would need to announce that their support is up for grabs, based on a clear set of criteria. Given the Obama administration's rampant anti-labor policies, this wouldn't be an unreasonable posture. And then a senior politician, like, say, a Tom Harkin, would need to decide that he would want to encourage robust intra-party debate about the party's future.
Harkin could run as a "favorite son" of Iowa, and encourage people in the caucuses to send a message to the party and to Obama by choosing him. Other candidates could then emerge in early primary and caucus states, as a way of repudiating Obama's leadership. Candidates wouldn't have to pretend to be running for president or be presidential quality; they could simply stand in as favorite sons or daughters of their own geographic area. This would immediately fire up a highly aggressive and needed debate about the direction of the Democratic Party and the country at large. It would build a new set of leaders, and elevate others who would like to distance themselves from the Obama policy agenda.
In a few months, we'll know better if Obama still looks like a loser next year. If he does, that does not mean the Democratic Party must follow him down the path to oblivion.
For Obama, the die is cast. He has put forward his economic program, and it will work to return jobs and income, and get the votes, or it won't. Knocking on doors won't change that, nor will a donation in a $6 billion election season. What can change the reality of 2012 is if Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, begins to take his job of representing workers seriously, and one or two establishment Democrats who remember liberalism decide to model courage for the younger generation. Then a robust debate can happen. Only by shaking up the current political order will solutions emerge.
Such debates tend to create institutional reforms -- the vibrant antiwar blogosphere of 2002-2006, and eventually the Obama campaign itself, emerged out of such a series of debates. Such a debate would also force the Obama campaign to come up with some answers to questions it would prefer to defer until after the election: Where are the jobs, and what is the plan to stop foreclosures? It would allow millions of Americans who have been hurt -- and who have benefited -- from administration policies, to have their say.
I wish I could say I was optimistic that party leaders will step forward and start the debate Democratic voters need. As for many, the last few years have shattered my faith in the political process. Obama has basically endorsed every major plank of George Bush's administration, yet Democrats still grant their approval. What we're finding out is that Obama's pathologically pro-establishment and conflict-averse DNA was funded by party insiders and embraced by liberal constituency groups in 2008 for a reason.
Political parties need to be flexible enough to allow for new ideas to come into the process, or else third parties or civil disorder are inevitable. All it would take to provide this flexibility are well-known Democratic elders who understand that rank and file Democrats deserve a choice, and a few political insiders who realize that they can increase their own power by encouraging a robust debate. I don't think this will happen. But just imagine if it did.
Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. His twitter feed is @matthewstoller and he can be reached at stoller at gmail.com.