Bogus Trend Nomination: Bai’s Murmurs

New York Times’s empty primary challenge story

Slate media critic Jack Shafer, among others, has made a game of spotting bogus trend stories in the press. Generally plucking from the Style section of The New York Times, Shafer delights in skewering lazily patched-together stories about non-bathing New Yorkers, evangelical martial arts enthusiasts, and pot-smoking chefs (not a bogus trend, more an obvious one).

Our nomination for this week’s bogus Times trend story is in the national section under the headline, “Murmurs on Left of a Primary Challenge to Obama.” Its author, political writer and analyst Matt Bai, writes that disappointed liberals, spurred by the president’s compromise on extending the Bush era tax cuts, among other compromises and failures, are calling for—or at least “murmuring” among themselves about—a primary challenger to take on the president in the lead-up to 2012. The evidence? A trio of liberal columns. Yep, as the rule goes, “three’s a trend.”

Just last weekend, three liberal writers made the case for taking on Mr. Obama in 2012. Michael Lerner, longtime editor of Tikkun magazine, argued in The Washington Post that a primary represented a “real way to save the Obama presidency,” by forcing Mr. Obama to move leftward. Robert Kuttner, co-founder of The American Prospect and one of the party’s most scathing populist voices, issued a similar call on The Huffington Post, suggesting Iowa as the ideal incubator.

On the same site, Clarence B. Jones, a one-time confidant of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., suggested that liberals should break with Mr. Obama now, just as Dr. King and others did with Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. “It is not easy to consider challenging the first African-American to be elected president of the United States,” Mr. Jones wrote. “But, regrettably, I believe the time has come to do this.”

To be fair, Bai goes for a fourth, but doesn’t quite get there.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, a group known as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, originally founded to aid Democratic Congressional candidates in 2010, has started broadcasting an advertisement that shows Mr. Obama, in 2008, promising to reverse the tax cuts for the most affluent Americans. The group isn’t advocating a primary challenge just yet — but then, the choice of Iowa as a market seems intended to send a pretty clear warning to the White House.

The group’s co-founder, quoted in the piece, makes no mention of a primary challenger. He is the only person Bai seems to have spoken to for the report.

And that’s pretty much all that’s offered to support the rather sensational headline and a lede which claims the latest compromise “is bound to intensify a debate that has been bubbling up on liberal blogs and e-mail lists in recent weeks—whether or not the president who embodied ‘hope and change’ in 2008 should face a primary challenge in 2012.” Well, after an uncritical reading of this article, maybe.

Bai is a smart reporter with a deep store of political and historical trivia. Thus, he infuses the piece with much about past Democratic presidents and their struggles to hold the liberal base, and illustrates the ways in which the president was “echoing his democratic predecessors” at yesterday’s relatively heated White House presser. But Bai is also smarter than the bogus trend piece he is writing. He seems to repeatedly acknowledge that he’s stretching to move the analysis from liberal discontent to viable talk of a primary challenger. At times it’s like Bai’s playing a game of racquetball against himself.

Take this paragraph, the first one after the lede, which seems to dismiss the lede setting it up.

The idea seems to have little momentum for now, not least because there isn’t an obvious candidate, and because such a challenge would seem to have about as much chance of success as, say, a reality show about David Hasselhoff. That a primary is being openly discussed, though, reflects how fully Mr. Obama’s relationship with his party’s liberal activists has ruptured and the considerable confusion on the left over what to do about it.

And then this systematic breakdown of the article’s premise.

The White House seems to view the notion of a serious primary challenge as far-fetched, and you can see why. For one thing, there seems to be no perfect vehicle out there, no Edward M. Kennedy biding his time.

The closest approximation appears to be Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate and party chairman who criticized the president’s deal on taxes. But Mr. Dean hasn’t shown any interest to this point in running, and you might recall that his 2004 campaign, for all its passion and fund-raising prowess, yielded just two primary victories, in the District of Columbia and in his home state of Vermont.

In the end, he does lay out the ominous consequences in store for the president if this bogus trend turns into something more concrete. McCarthy in 1968 and Buchanan in 1992 weren’t victorious, Bai explains, but their primary challenges were enough to damage sitting presidents seeking re-election.

Such protests candidates don’t have to win more than a state or two to have an impact; they merely have to show up and sow division. It probably isn’t coincidental that none of the last four American presidents to face primaries while seeking re-election—Johnson, Gerald R. Ford, Carter and George H. W. Bush—survived to serve another term.

In other words, should the president’s progressive critics warm to the idea, it might not take a particularly credible primary challenge to weaken Mr. Obama’s chances for re-election. It might only take a challenge designed to do exactly that.

In other words: should this trend actually turn out to be a trend, and if it the trend turns to action, then the president might have to worry.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.