Absurdly Premature 2012 Watch, Vol. 5: Dean vs. Obama? Are You Serious?

Photo by Nick Davis, from Wikipedia.

The dream, as a rather famous Democrat once said, shall never die.

In this case, I'm not referring to the dream of a progressive future full of high-paying jobs, plentiful health care, and extremely large polar ice caps, although in the minds of its adherents, I'm sure these developments would be part of the deal. I'm referring to the dream of Howard Dean─or, more precisely, President Howard Dean.

As you've probably heard by now, the former Vermont governor, DNC chairman, and presidential candidate of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" reacted to the Lieberman-fueled implosion of the Senate's Medicare buy-in compromise last week with shock and chagrin, taking to the nation's newspapers and airwaves to say that lily-livered Washington Democrats would be better off hitting the reset button on this whole health-care reform thing than going forward with the monstrosity they hath wrought. "This is essentially the collapse of health-care reform in the United States Senate," he told Vermont Public Radio. "And, honestly, the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill and go back to the House."

Amid the predictable range of reactions─conservatives rejoiced, centrists raged, liberals sighed─a funny thing began to happen. On the far left─a place where Obama is apparently considered a "Rockefeller-type Republican" who "support[s] ... big business and Wall Street" and has "virulent and hawkish, expansionist view of American Empire"─some folks started fantasizing, as overinflated MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann put it, about the "progressive caucus and progressives ... abandon[ing] [the president] if necessary" and "find[ing] somebody else to run against him [in 2012] ... no matter how destructive that may seem at face value." And that somebody, a sizable number of these disgruntled Dems seem to have concluded, should be none other than the bomb-throwing Man of the Moment: Gov. Howard Dean.

Here's the pitch from the progressives at Firedoglake:

Dean has national name recognition. He can crank up a campaign quickly and attract the best people. He’s a Washington, D.C. outsider since Obama-Rahm did him the favor of not letting him in on their gig. He has the backing of most progressives and liberals, the very people who worked hard to win the primaries and the general election for Obama.

If the progressives and liberals bolt from Obama as they surely will if Dean challenges Obama, that leaves Obama with the Blue Dogs in the Democratic primaries in 2012. The progressives and liberals control the path to the Democratic party nomination, that’s why Obama garbed himself in progressive clothing in 2008 but his stealth candidacy has now exposed him for what he is: a DLCer. Obama doesn’t have the warmth of Dean or Clinton to overcome his DLC positions and win the nomination ... Progressives and liberal Democrats are the real enemy of this administration.

The "Draft Dean" "movement" raises several interesting questions, the least interesting of which is "Could Dean actually win the nomination?" The answer there seems relatively straightforward: not a chance. After nearly a year of recession, relentless Republican demagoguery and rather unsavory legislative sausage-making, Obama's job approval rating still stands at 50 percent; his personal approval numbers are between 55 and 60 percent. That's not to say things won't get worse. But whatever happens over the next few years, it's hard to imagine that Democrats will replace a sitting president who has managed to keep his popularity from plummeting to Bushian levels in the midst of the harshest governing climate in decades with a northeastern liberal who couldn't even defeat John Kerry for his party's nomination─especially given that doing so would simply reinforce the battle cry that conservatives will be sure to sound ("Democrats = Socialists") every day between now and November 2012 and risk returning the White House to a Republican far less palatable than Rockefeller. Firedoglake cites the 1968 Democratic primary battle as a favorable precedent. "An obscure Senator by the name of Gene McCarthy (not RFK) challenged the mighty incumbent, LBJ," the blogger writes. "Just days before the April primary in Wisconsin, with polls showing McCarthy would decisively beat the president, LBJ announced he would not run again for the presidency." He or she seems to forget that A.) LBJ was far less popular than Obama at the time (job approval: 35 percent), B.) an establishment candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, eventually beat McCarthy for the nomination, and C.) Richard Nixon wound up clobbering Humphrey in the general. Democrats won't want to chance a similar outcome. And that's assuming Dean wants to run again, which is almost impossible to imagine.

The more interesting question is "Why is this happening to Obama--and why now?" George W. Bush violated two basic tenets of conservative philosophy by increasing government spending and launching an idealistic nation-building adventure in a foreign land─and I don't recall Sean Hannity ever threatening him with a primary challenge. In part, it's nice that progressives are more willing than conservatives to criticize their own leaders: sticking to one's guns, speaking truth to power, etc. But ultimately this is more about the way Obama governs and the time he's governing in than the temperament of his base. Unlike his most recent predecessors, Obama seems to prefer telling the American people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear, and to pursue policies that are similarly calibrated. Health care, for example, was not a top concern among voters when the president launched his reform push earlier this year; neither the right nor the left was happy with his decision to surge in Afghanistan before beginning to draw down in 2011. (Next up: the budget.)

I mean, when was the last time both liberals and conservatives reacted negatively to White House policy? When was the last time a president was accused of being a cryptosocialist and a Republican in sheep's clothing at the same time? It's unprecedented. Factor in the Internet and 24/7 cable news, which tend to amplify the loudest voices and create a feedback loop of partisanship, and it makes sense that a president who values pragmatism over purity or political gain is catching flack from both sides of the aisle. Obama's pragmatism frustrates conservatives because it means that he gets things done─things like passing the most progressive social program since LBJ's Great Society and potentially easing out of the war in Afghanistan. And it frustrates liberals because it means that he gets things done "imperfectly," with more troops and no public option. So what do they all do? Complain. On TV.

Such are the costs, I suppose, of actually attempting to govern in this day and age. The question for 2012─the question this brief "Draft Dean" moment hints at─is whether a president can get reelected on such a radical platform.