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Howard Dean

Howard Dean

There’s  much election and polling news of late, partly because of President Obama’s dismal approval rating at only a year into his presidency.  There is much chatter inside the beltway that Dean could primary Obama, and that chatter has spilled onto the internet.

As much as there is talk about the internal debate inside the Republican Party, the Democrats are also in an internecine battle.  Obama perceived caving on the health care debate has prompted some to consider another, more “progressive” candidate for 2012.  His name is Howard Dean.

RCP reports that it is possible Dean could primary Obama.  However, such a move would be ill advised:

Of course he could, but nobody should expect him to topple the President. If Theodore Roosevelt couldn’t successfully primary Howard Taft in 1912, what hope does any insurgent have, especially one who lost out to John Kerry?

Now, the nomination battle has changed quite a bit in the 98 years since Teddy took on the Big Lub, but the following is most definitely true. Incumbent presidents who were elected to office were often denied their party’s re-nomination in the 19th century (the first loser being the drunk, incompetent Franklin Pierce in 1856), but it is a very rare occurrence these days. And by rare I mean it hasn’t happened in over a century.

The power of selecting the next nominee has generally fallen to the people – via the primaries and caucuses – but make no mistake: the party establishment still has a dominant role, and an incumbent President almost always has the establishment on his side. That makes him near impossible to defeat – you have to go back to the corruption of the Gilded Age or the political breakdown of the antebellum years to find incumbents who couldn’t secure the support of the insiders whose jobs depend on the incumbent’s continued success.

That’s not to say Dean (or somebody) wouldn’t try. It’s just to say that if he has any sense in his head, his goal wouldn’t be to become the 45th President. When Pat Buchanan took on George H.W. Bush in 1992, I doubt his purpose was actually to become the next President. More likely, it was about making public the dissatisfaction a faction within the Republican Party was feeling by 1992.

That points to what makes these primary contests so noteworthy: they are more a symptom of failure than a cause. If a President cannot lock down all the major parts of his own party, and instead must slug it out in a primary – it’s a sign that he’s going to have trouble building a majority coalition in the fall. Taft, Carter, and Bush all lost their general election contests after beating back big time challenges for the nomination. So did Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s stand-in in 1968, after Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy launched insurgent candidacies for the White House.

So, the purpose of primary challengers to a sitting president, is not really for the challenger to “win,” but to tank their own sitting leader of a certain wing of the party.  Even if the challenger thinks he/she is going to win, the result is often to hand the White House to the opposing party.

The Democrats likely know this.  And though the base may be frustrated with Obama, he is unlikely to face a challenge from within–unless he becomes perceived as very weak and ineffective.  If that happens, the chances a challenger will show up will rise far above what the author of this RCP article thinks the chances are now.

This means that Obama will need to lock down his base to prevent a primary challenge.  If he is unable to do so, there is a great likelihood he will be challenged from his left flank in 2012.