Michael Lerner's secret plan to elect a Republican president
12/06/2010 - 23:08
James Besser

I had a hard time thinking about how to respond to Rabbi Michael Lerner's Washington Post oped on Saturday arguing that the best way to save the Barack Obama presidency is to find some progressive to challenge him in the Democratic primaries, since at first glance it looks more like parody than political analysis.

What pushes his argument over the line is his list of potential challengers - like the foot-in-mouth-prone,  just-defeated Rep. Alan Grayson, or actress Susan Sarandon – she was great in Bull Durham, but I have my doubts about a Sarandon presidency - or Rep. John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who is just about the only member of Congress who seems to admire Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Or, Lerner argues, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), with his ethically checkered past – just the man to give new credibility to some of the nuttier and more extreme Republican hopefuls. (To be fair, Lerner's list also includes more reasonable potential challengers like Sen. Russ Feingold, the defeated senator from Wisconsin, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont).

Lerner writes: “[M]any progressives are starting to believe that Obama has little chance of winning reelection unless he enthusiastically embraces a populist agenda and worldview - soon. Yet there is little chance that will happen without a massive public revolt by his constituency that goes beyond rallies, snide remarks from television personalities or indignant op-eds.”

Well, yes: progressives are unhappy. But it seems pretty unlikely that splitting the party with a challenge from the party's far fringes will somehow get a president whose entire political career has represented a quest for the center to suddenly tack left, or that it will be will be good for the unusually high number of Democratic senators who will be trying to hold on for dear life when they seek reelection in 2012.

I'm not arguing that liberalism is bad; I am arguing that liberals have done a pathetic job of getting their ideas across to the electorate, and part of the reason is that they have been deaf to the concerns of so many voters. Putting up Jim Moran as a possible Democratic challenger suggests Lerner, at least, hasn't gotten his hearing aids fixed.

Add to that John Conyers, and the more conspiracy-minded among us might suspect a secret plot to fulfill perennial Republican predictions of a major Jewish exodus from the Democrats to the GOP.

While Lerner argues a stiff primary challenge would push Obama to the left, it's probably do exactly the opposite, pushing him to more Clintonesque triangulation.

There's little question Obama faces widespread disillusionment from the progressive wing of the Democratic party. That includes economic progressives who hate the compromises he's made on health care and financial reform, and pro-Israel progressives who think he wears a “kick me” sign on his back every time he deals with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But I'm pretty sure a primary challenge from the left, and particularly from the likes of Conyers or Moran, won't fix the problem - and would be the best possible gift to a resurgent GOP.

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I listed about 15 possible candidates who could support a progressive agenda, including Senators Feingold and Sanders, Congresspeople Raul Grijalva and Lynn Woolsey, and could also imagine people like Howard Dean, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, or Rachel Madow doing the job. But the job as I conceive it is not to be the "glamor boy or girl" that the media approve of or that the inside-the-Beltway crowd are willing to deem a "serious" or "realistic" candidate. Rather, as I've said repeatedly, our mistake is to allow the media to define politics around a specific candidate rather than around a coherent set of ideas. The wisdom of the Tea Party was that they did not start with a candidate but with a perspective, and similarly any challenge to the Blue Dog Democrats in the Congressional primaries and to Obama in the presidential primary must be done not on the basis of who is seen by the media as serious, but rather as who can articulate and fight for a progressive agenda and make sure that her or his candidacy (and presidency if that should ever happen) is not about themselves but about the ideas of the movement that s/he builds. I'm sorry that Besser didn't get this--he's a fine journalist, but sometimes thinks too much in inside-the-beltway terms. Such a candidacy will not weaken Obama--he has done enough of that to himself by standing for nothing, or at least not fighting for anything he claims to believe in. But the goal of this challenge is to make clear that his wishy-washy approach is not a representation of what progressives stand for, but is a betrayal of progressive ideals. We do not want the kind of health care plan he passed. We do not want a war in Afghanistan. We do not want phony cap-and-trade environmental ideas, but a carbon tax. We do not want to compromise civil liberties and human rights. Obama is not the left of the Democratic Party, but defacto a Blue Dog Democrat who has more in common with Wall Street interests than with the interests of ordinary citizens. By forcing him to clarify his actual politics and worldview, the campaign that we might run will actually strengthen his viability in 2012. Yet my reason for wanting a progressive voice in 2012 is not primarily to help Obama but to represent the perspective and world view of most liberals and progressives in the U.S. Obama and his crowd don't pay attention to those liberals and progressives because they believe that no matter how far he strays from the promises he made to us, we "have no place to go"--that is, we'll vote for him no matter what he does, because we will never abandon him for the Republicans. In short, he has no incentive to pay attention to his liberal and progressive base. A progressive primary challenge will give him that incentive. And it will revive the forces of liberalism that once proudly served this country through the ideas and visions of F.D.R., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther KING, Jr. Those ideals are still worth fighting for, though as we at Tikkun Magazine have been trying to make clear for the last 25 years, they are not enough until they are combined with a spiritual progressive vision and the sorts of programs that I outlined in my op-ed in the Washington Post, in my more recent article on Huffington Post, and that are most fully described in the Spiritual Covenant with America presented by the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives and which you can read at www.spiritualprogressives.org. --Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun www.tikkun.org RabbiLerner@Tikkun.org -- Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun Magazine RabbiLerner@Tikkun.org.