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June 12, 2013 4:30 PM 2016 and Obama’s Left Flank

By Ed Kilgore

For those of us who can’t quite stop looking ahead to the next presidential election, veteran political reporter Walter Shapiro has a nice treat at TAP today: a missive to potential Democratic candidates in 2016 who aren’t named Hillary or Joe suggesting their easiest path to credibility is to take advantage of the Obama administration soft left flank and thinly veiled activist discontent with key aspects of his presidency.

To succeed, you have to anticipate the answer to a very tricky question: On the eve of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, what aspects of the Obama presidency will have angered, exasperated or disappointed loyal Democrats? The answer explains whom you will become—the candidate who convincingly promises to save the Democrats from Obama’s deficiencies.

Shaprio goes on to identify a bunch of Obama policies or positions from which a 2016 Democratic candidate could profitably dissent (with the proper tone of respect or even sorrowful sympathy for the 44th president, of course): NSA data-mining; journalistic leak-plugging; drone warfare; Gitmo; campaign finance reform; and the fiscal strategies that have given us sequestration and persistently high unemployment. Depending on what happens in the very near future, one might be able to add environmental passivity, along with insufficient public support for unions and those affected by globalization. And there’s no question a pugilistic attitude towards Republicans that implicitly questions Obama’s bipartisanship talk would be very popular among “base” voters. Some segments of the Democratic Party would be very receptive to an up-front “populist” message bashing corporate power across the board.

Not every potential 2016er could move in such directions credibly (Andrew Cuomo has probably blown any chance to campaign as a “populist;” and Martin O’Malley’s said some things in the past that might call into question his sincerity as a civil libertarian opposed to vestiges of the GWOT).

Shapiro weighs the pros and cons of wrapping oneself around Obama and concludes there’s not much percentage in doing so for an “anti-establishment” candidate. That’s true, but as we’ve learned over time, Democratic voters can be touchier than you might expect about criticizing their presidents, as Howard Dean learned in 2004 when he referred to the Clinton administration as an exercise in “damage control,” and as Barack Obama showed once again when he deemed the Clinton presidency as “non-transformational.” After eight years of incessant Obama-bashing from the Right, there may never be a point at which any but the most disgruntled Democrats are ready for open disrespect aimed at the first African-American president.

But Shapiro warns that for all the risks of moving openly left of Obama, the price of delay could be even higher:

If you wait until late 2015 to criticize part of the president’s record, your dissent will come across as craven rather than courageous. Think of Hillary Clinton’s awkwardly distancing of herself from the Iraq War in 2008, even though Democratic primary voters knew that she had voted for it in the Senate. Howard Dean rose from nowhere in mid-2003 because he was the only major Democrat running who had been unalterably opposed to the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. Sometimes in presidential politics, when matters more than whether and right from the start trumps being correct right now.
That’s why 2013 is a perfect time to express skepticism about portions of the Obama record. If you say something now with the right tone, it will be perceived as a sincere expression of deep conviction. The longer you wait, the more poll-tested and political your critiques of Obama will be regarded.

You can make the argument that if a potential candidate knows he or she isn’t going to run unless HRC decides against a 2016 candidacy, all these anti-administration signals are both premature and a waste of time. Why position yourself to the left of a potential vacuum?

But in any event, Shapiro’s advice has the added advantage of justifying 2016 speculation for us political writers well before potential candidates start showing up on the potluck circuit in Iowa.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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