Could Nader Hurt Obama?
Imagining a 2012 protest candidacy like Pat Buchanan's in 1992.

The Wall Street Journal, Friday, September 23, 2011

It was hard to suppress a horselaugh at the weekend's news that Ralph Nader and Cornel West are trying to organize a primary challenge against President Obama. After all, this isn't exactly a pair of mainstream Democrats. Mr. Nader is still loathed within the party for his Green Party candidacy in 2000, which arguably cost Al Gore the White House. The feeling is mutual. He is perhaps the only non-Republican in public life who routinely refers to the "Democrat Party."

As for Mr. West, he is a Princeton professor of African-American studies who describes himself as a "non-Marxist socialist" and who backed Mr. Nader in 2000 and Al Sharpton four years later. In May he described Mr. Obama as having "a predilection much more toward upper-class white brothers and Jewish brothers and a certain distance from free black men."

Messrs. Nader and West don't even make a pretense of seeking to deny Mr. Obama the nomination. In a letter announcing their plan, they say they seek "a slate of six candidates," each an expert in "a field in which Obama has never clearly staked a progressive claim or where he has drifted toward the corporatist right." The goal would be "not to defeat the president" but "to rigorously debate his policy stands" and pull him to the left.

Yet it may be a mistake to assume the effort will amount to nothing. It's often said that no recent incumbent president has lost without first facing a serious primary challenger. But that is one of those neat rules that turn out to be a little too pat. Ronald Reagan in 1976 and Ted Kennedy in 1980 were formidable rivals to Presidents Ford and Carter, respectively. In 1968, Eugene McCarthy's unexpectedly strong second-place showing in New Hampshire, followed by Robert F. Kennedy's decision to seek the nomination, prompted Lyndon Johnson to announce his retirement.

But George Bush in 1992 is a more complicated case. His challenger was Pat Buchanan, a television commentator who had worked for two presidents but had never run for office. Mr. Buchanan's 37% of the vote in New Hampshire was surprising and impressive--but it was his peak (at least until 1996, when he beat Bob Dole in four states, including New Hampshire).

With just 22% of the cumulative 1992 primary vote, Mr. Buchanan came nowhere near wresting the nomination from the incumbent. His was merely a protest candidacy. But it was effective enough to earn him a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, which he used to declare, in his words, "a religious war." He said: "In that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side." To say the least, that was not a winning message. With Bill Clinton focusing on the economy and Ross Perot on the deficit, Mr. Bush ran a listless campaign and finished with the smallest popular-vote percentage of any major-party nominee since 1936.

Mr. Buchanan was a successful protest candidate because Mr. Bush had given the GOP's conservative base so much to protest, most notably by reneging on his promise not to raise taxes. The progressive Democratic base, likewise, has a litany of grievances against Mr. Obama, starting with his failure to raise taxes as much as they want. The Nader-West letter envisions something like Mr. Buchanan's 1992 effort. It promises a "robust and exciting discussion and debate" and warns that the alternative to a primary challenge is "a tediously scripted National Convention" that would leave left-wing voters "bored with and alienated from the democratic [sic] candidate."

All presidents have to compromise. Successful ones, like Reagan and Mr. Clinton, manage to do so while assuaging the objections of their base. So far Mr. Obama has proved incapable of doing both at once. Of late, however, the president has been acting like a primary candidate. His angry speech to Congress two weeks ago and the tax hike he proposed this week have drawn progressive plaudits. Mr. Obama's newly confrontational attitude toward the GOP may be sufficient to reinspirit the left and forestall any primary protest. In that case, Messrs. Nader and West have simply found a parade and gotten in front of it.

The question for the president then will be whether he can win back the center. His best shot may be to run a viciously negative campaign against the Republican nominee. That would suit Messrs. Nader and West just fine. Their letter asserts that their protest candidates would "display a sobering contrast with the alarmingly weak, hysterical, and untested field taking shape on the right." It doesn't occur to them that the extremity of their own ideology may repel the voters who will decide the election. It didn't occur to Pat Buchanan either.

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