Obama and the Ghost of '68

Will liberal voters abandon their president over Libya?


In 2008, Democratic voters had their pick of many candidates for president—from Hillary Clinton to John Edwards to Joe Biden. Why did they choose Barack Obama?

After all, he had less experience in office than many of his rivals. He was not as well-known. He had the potential electoral liability of being black. No one knew if he was tough enough to stand up to Republican assaults in a nasty campaign.

So what accounts for his success? More than any other reason, he won because he had opposed the invasion of Iraq—which Clinton and others had endorsed. Obama was the peace candidate of 2008. As the long and costly war dragged on, that was a priceless asset.

Where are those voters now? The majority is probably still in Obama's camp. Most Democrats in Congress have defended the president's attack on Libya. Most have given him the benefit of the doubt in his slow withdrawal from Iraq. Most have gone along with his dramatic escalation in Afghanistan.

But the mood of Democrats may be changing. The liberal magazine The Nation decried the intervention in Libya as "flagrant hypocrisy." John Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, upbraided Obama for not consulting Congress.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), called the war "another disaster." If our involvement lasts weeks or months instead of days, Obama could lose many Democratic members.

He has already lost a lot of them on Afghanistan. Recently, 85 House Democrats voted for Kucinich's resolution demanding withdrawal of U.S. forces by Dec. 31, with 99 voting no. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), says both he and "a lot of my colleagues" in the Senate will also push for a speedy and complete departure.

Obama has promised to withdraw some troops beginning in July, but he is committed to staying around till 2014. An unnamed senior official told ABC News this month "a substantial reduction is now 'unlikely.'" Barring unexpectedly quick gains in security, most of our troops will still be there when the Iowa caucuses are held.

The combination of Afghanistan and Libya could bring a bitter end to the romance between Democratic liberals and Obama. Many of them were already disappointed with him for extending the Bush tax cuts, bailing out Wall Street, omitting a public option from the health care overhaul, offering to freeze domestic discretionary spending, and generally declining to go after Republicans hammer and tong.

Had he rejected demands to use military force against Moammar Gadhafi, they would have had the solace of seeing the hawks finally put in their place. Instead, Obama did in Libya about what Clinton or John McCain probably would have done.

Liberal doves are feeling a deep sense of betrayal after watching their champion of peace drop bombs on an Arab country. If the war drags on inconclusively, or if Obama feels compelled to expand our involvement, their discontent will grow.

Then what? Then he could face what Lyndon Johnson faced in 1968: a Democratic primary challenger appealing to those tired of war and mistrustful of their president.

Whom might that be? Maybe former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who opposed the Iraq war and provided the sole vote against the original Patriot Act. Maybe Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who is not running for re-election and has criticized the Libya attack. Or maybe someone else.

It isn't important whether the challenger is plausible as president. What's important is that alienated Democrats have some way to express their anger and disenchantment. No liberal insurgent is likely to beat Obama. But Obama can lose even if he wins.

Eugene McCarthy, after all, came in second to Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary. Ted Kennedy couldn't unseat Jimmy Carter in 1980. Pat Buchanan lost every primary against George H.W. Bush in 1992. None of those presidents, however, got a second term in office.

A Democratic challenge could be fatal to Obama's re-election bid, for several reasons. It would highlight the ways in which he has failed liberals. It would make him look beleaguered and vulnerable. It would drain resources that could be used against Republicans. And the fight could embitter many Democrats, inducing them to stay home on Election Day.

In 1968, McCarthy's campaign posters said, "He stood up alone and something happened." It could happen again.


NEXT: The Silent Screen

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  1. Good morning reason!

  2. what Lyndon Johnson faced in 1968: a Democratic primary challenger appealing to those tired of war...

    ...and the draft. This isn't 1968.

    1. Exactly. Also, so far there are no American casualties in Libya. The average voter may tell a pollster he doesn't "approve" of the bombing of Libya, but as long as there are no America casualties, he'll tolerate lobbing cruise missiles at Gaddafi until hell freezes over.

      1. Jesse Jackson did not even have to go get the F-15 pilots that crashed! I thought we were just refueling and radaring?

    2. Correct, this is not 1968. We had 2 parties in 1968. Today we are a 1 party state.

      The party simply markets itself to two different markets under two different brand names. The single Party supports an ever increasing Federal Government in terms of function, size, revenue, and power exercised over the US civilian population. They may say otherwise, but actions speak louder than words.

      Consider your last presidential election. The fact that McCain and Obama had remarkably similar Senate voting record's is a strong indicator of the similarities between each party's nominee. Any review of recent history will indicate that Obama's behavior in office increasingly resembles that of his predecessor. McCain and Obama's primary difference began and ended in their rhetoric.


    3. The political atmosphere in 1968 got the Republican candidate elected by a sizeable majority. That atmosphere hasn't existed for a long, long time.

  3. I'd love to see Jim Webb run. But it will never happen.

    1. At his age he likely walks far more of the time, but I'm sure he's capable of running.

    2. If Webb wasn't going to run in '08, I doubt he'll run now, even with retiring from his Senate seat. He was my sleeper for the Dem nomination during the '08 campaign, and I was surprised that he didn't end up running. Too bad, as watching Webb blow up at people during a Prez campaign run would have been great fun. The guy makes Gingrich seem cuddly and easy to get along with.

  4. The Democrats are not going to replace Obama, that would be racist. It would rip the party apart. Not that I would mind the Democrats being torn apart, as long as they tore the Republcians apart at the same time. Maybe we could get new party's, the "Mind Your Own Business Party" and the "We Know How To Run Your Life Party".

    1. The Democrats are not going to replace Obama, that would be racist.

      Not if the replacement is, say, Jesse Jackson.

      1. If they run another man, it might be considered sexist. Pelosi is an easy target (she gets angry when anyone suggests privatizing anything, in my experience), so lets hope for her. Kind of like the Hilary thing all over again, but with someone who has Congressional experience.

        Pretty sure there are some black women Democrats. Then they've got things covered unless the Republicans run a black women.

        Whatever happened to the real issues, like policy?

    2. Race has nothing to do with it.

      Like the article says, incumbents don't get superseded by their own party, although competitors can weaken their ability to win the general election.

      The GOP pool for 2012 is looking extremely weak, but one sure route to Republican victory would be for an attractive Democrat candidate to split the liberal vote. Whether that happens depends on how this Libya thing turns out.

      I actually think it's possible that the Libya war may go (relatively) smoothly, and it will be seen as an "easy" war, akin to Gulf War I. This would be unfortunate because it would reaffirm the fantasy that America can go on policing the world.

      Then again, the "easiness" of that war didn't help GHW Bush secure a second term....

      1. Libs made it abundantly clear that racism is the only possible excuse for criticism of Obama's policy.

        For them to criticize his policy and claim reasons other than racism would by hypocritical.

        And since liberals are never hypocritical about anything, since they are so intellectually honest and full of integrity, there is no possible way that they could turn on Obama.

        That would be racist.

      2. The Kochs fund Howard Dean (surreptiously of course). A video of Biden having sex with a chocolate bunny appears (NO, a real chocolate bunny). Jerry Brown is selected the compromise candidate as the democrats bring back (marijuana) smoke filled rooms. The repubs scamper away in fear of the Brown juggernaught.

    3. Maybe we could get new party's,

      the "We Don't Misuse Apostrophes Party" and the "We Love to Put Apostrophe's in Plural's Party".

      1. What?

        1. if u cn reed this, thnak a public sckool teecher

          1. If should have been capitalized. If, this, a, and public were spelled correctly. Add a period.

            And I went to public school. No doubt, though, that private would have been better.

            1. Dirty little secret...failing public schools are mostly in inner cities (usually controlled by Dems...just saying) Suburban public schools often produce students who are accepted to fine universities where they excel. If you want to discuss the public school system and it's failings, of which there are many, please be honest.

  5. Liberal doves are feeling a deep sense of betrayal after watching their champion of peace drop bombs on an Arab country.

    It's simply that he hasn't spent enough time clearly explaining the benefits of the bombing. That's what tonight's speech is for.

  6. Assuming the Reason editors actually read these comments, I have a quick suggestion:

    I have noticed that a lot of recent Reason articles require a click-through to a second page, even though the second page usually only contains about eight lines of text.

    Is there a reason for this? Do the extra clicks boost revenue somehow? If not, might you consider keeping shorter articles to a single page? The click-thrus are slightly annoying.

    1. It's becuase, deep down, they are fucking trolls.

      1. It is automatically generated

    2. Using m.reason.com allows you to skip ads and second pages.

    3. Probably allows them to sell more adspace.

  7. Doubtful, Clinton bombed Serbia and some factories in Sudan. The left like war as much as the right, the only difference is that they like to sell themselves as being peaceful, while the right has no problem selling themselves has war fans.

    1. I agree, and if he pulls this off, he will come out with high approval ratings. Otherwise, no harm, no foul

    2. But the actual Left was pissed at Clinton for bombing Serbia. Hence Ralph Nader's campaign. Bombing 3rd world countries is what Democrats do to attract the moderate vote.

  8. "Will liberal voters abandon their president over Libya?"
    You mean will sack of shit libs abandon the sack of shit with big ears.....NO!

  9. The question is if independents will vote for whomever the Republicans run against Obama because of the war in Libya. While a third party spoiler might change that up a bit, it seems most likely that the 3rd party candidate will come from the Tea Party side of the political spectrum. Let's say, just for fun, Donald Trump.

    1. Lets run Nick Gillespie or John Stossel. Not that I'd expect them to win electoral points, but they might pull a better percentage than Nader always got away with. Maybe one of the Pauls, running against the Republicans.

      I'm certainly not supporting the Republicans this time, unless they run someone who's spitting distance from libertarianism.

  10. I actually think it's possible that the Libya war may go (relatively) smoothly,

    The war to overthrow Gadafi may go as smoothly as the war to overthrow Hussein.

    The hard part is what comes next. Seeing as AQ and the Muslim Brotherhood are deeply entrenched in eastern Libya, where the rebels come from, and Libya is still a tribal society with no perceptible civil institutions, I think we are looking at two outcomes after Gaddafi is gone:

    (1) Islamist state allied with Iran, complete with tribal purges and terrorist havens, or

    (2) "Occupation" by "NATO/the UN" (read, the US) to nation-build. I think we have a pretty good idea how that will go.

    1. I'm worried (1) will happen in Egypt. Everyone was acting like Mubarak going bye bye would automatically secure democracy. And we know that democracy and freedom are not always synonyms.

      (2) is expensive and probably won't work. We need education in the (classic) liberal tradition, not "nation building," whatever that actually means.

  11. the implication of this article is that liberals are anti war. they are not. They are anti anything that seems likely in any way to benefit the continued existence of western civ. They are for anything that threatens it or that in any way supports the opposition, non western, mainly Islamic civilizations. During the cold war they supported communists as the group most likely to bring down the west. A woman once told me that Mao was right in killing tens of millions because he had the right idea, he had good intentions. Now it is Islam that they champion.

    to the extent that this is religious, racial, or ethnic, or regional loyalty, I guess it makes sense, not sense in a I believe in democracy sense or I believe in the equality of humans sense, but in a basic human, that is, preliberal, racist sense. But none of this can apply to white liberals. What motivates that group to champion the side that is not liberal and the side that is also not their side and that threatens to extinguish their side is a mystery to conservatives like myself.

    1. "What motivates that group to champion the side that is not liberal and the side that is also not their side and that threatens to extinguish their side is a mystery to conservatives like myself."

      Of course it's a mystery - it's utter nonsense. Since your idea of a "liberal" is a fictional bogeyman, it's no wonder you're at a loss.

  12. He lost my vote long ago, with the healthcare issue and every other thing he turned on.If another democrat does not get a chance, I sure hope there is a third candidate.

  13. Libya, with influence in Tunisia and Egypt will be a stabilizing force, if we do not use ground troops to bring the Tea Party culture to the Middle East.

    1. Honey, the democratic political culture of the Middle East (and most of the rest of the non-Western world) makes the Tea Party look like a haven of progressivism.

      You really don't have a clue, do you?

  14. Obama won the Dem nomination because of his Iraq war stance. He won the general election because the Republicans had damn near destroyed the economy.

    I read about an interesting study that looked at military actions over the past several decades and whether presidential approval numbers went up as a result. Turns out that whether a president gets a bump from engaging in military action depends on whether the opposition party is with him or against him. In other words, independents tend to align their beliefs with whatever the leaders in the party they most identify with are saying. So Obama is not getting a poll bump from Libya, probably because Republicans are, contrary to their "support the commander in chief" tendencies, have been expressing skepticism (because everything Obama does is bad by definition). So Republican-leaning independents are not sold.

    But elections tend to hinge on the economy above all else. Republicans theoretically have an opportunity here since we won't be back to anywhere close to full employment by late 2012, but they're doing everything they can to ignore the economy and focus on social issues. They're throwing the next election away. If liberals act like whiny brats because Obama's promised pony never arrived, it may have an effect, since conservatives are as motivated as they ever have been to vote. But in general the harcore people in both parties are not important--they always vote one way. And it's going to be quite difficult for anyone able to win a Republican primary in this day and age to not frighten independents away in the general. I do genuinely fear the consequences of an Obama reelection though. A large minority of the population has been told that he is evil incarnate, and they seem to be holding out hope that he'll lose reelection. Wonder what their plan B is?

    1. Team Blue good! Team Everyone Else bad!

    2. "He won the general election because the Republicans had damn near destroyed the economy."


      Even if the popular view is correct, that banks given free reign ruined the economy, that's businesses fault, not the Republicans. The Federal Reserve's antics haven't really changed that much since 2007, when this began. And Bush signed off on the first stimulus bills.

      What really got this started was those NINJA loans (read: Money to Idiots Program) and the housing bubble. And I don't think that was the Republicans' fault, but that of stupid bankers. One could argue that deregulation let this happen, but deregulation is based on the idea that people are capable of making decisions responsibly on their own. And they are, presupposing they think. Anyone who runs a Money to Idiots Program clearly can't.

  15. Any white person who runs against Obama as a Democrat will be called a racist. That alone is enough to keep them scared away.

  16. He won the general election because the Republicans had damn near destroyed the economy.

    All by themselves?

    1. If they did so, it was by Keynesian and protectionist regulation that the Democrats have generally continued. Unless the argument is that deregulation caused the crisis, in which case I say that their deregulation was not enough to make people behave as the free market dictates. If we had a free market, I don't think anyone would have made those NINJA loans to begin with, their would have been no housing bubble, and the recession would have not occurred or been much milder, not provoking government action,

  17. He won the general election because the Republicans had damn near destroyed the economy nominated John McCain.

    1. You've got it backwards, and CC is right. The Republicans ended up nominating a weak candidate like McCain because the economy was in the tank.

      1. This originally came from our beloved pet, Tony the Troll.

  18. I wouldn't be surprised if Kucinich at least thinks about challenging Obama for the Democratic nominatiion. Especially if Obama continues to alienate the anti-war vote with his behavior on Libya and elsewhere.

    1. I won't be too terribly suprised if Obama doesn't even get the Democratic nomination. Let alone if he fails to be reelected, though I probably won't like whoever gets elected in his stead.

  19. I should point out for those who have forgotten that part of Obama's victory was that he had the highest voter turnout in decades, not in the least because blacks wanted to vote for him. He was the "race" candidate, I suspect. This allowed him to pull away some southern Republican states. He also got some swing states in the Rust Belt by appealing very strongly to the "working class." A lot of this wasn't so much about this issues.

    1. Admittedly, the recession contributed to higher voter turnout in general, but I don't think that that was the main factor in the increase. Most estimates put the voter turnout as the highest since the 1960s.

  20. The left is hypocritical and desperate. They'll stand by him.

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  23. Black voters will stay home in 2012. Barry isn't "black enough" (see recent Black Panther dress down)for a repeat of their support. White independent voters will carry the day in 2012. The question is will B.O. be palatable enough not to illicit a gag reflex when casting a ballot. Or will the Repubs or others run a better choice.

  24. Trouble in paradise! But really, what do you expect? The left voted for a messiah and got a man instead, and now they're upset. Anyone should have seen this coming, Libya or no Libya.

  25. As a leftist dove who knew enough about Obama NOT to vote for him in 2008 (I voted for Cynthia McKinney), I must say that I do not feel betrayed nor surprised by his pro-Corporate-Militarist policies. And, since both major political parties are appendages of the Corporatist-Militarist Ruling Class, it will not matter who wins in 2012. The Empire will grind on, crushing us at home and abroad, until it finally collapses.

    1. You got it right!

  26. Why did it take 60 posts before Ed contributed the most obvious comment?
    Obama said one thing on the campaign trail in order to glean votes.
    Did another thing once he was CEO of Team America.
    Who over the age of 11 was surprised by this?

  27. I think Chapman's fundamental point is wrong on this one. Obama didn't win the nomination and election because of any political issue. He won because he offered an articulate, charasmatic message of hope. People looked at Obama and saw a cross between Kennedy and Reagan.
    You don't need to push the right issues to get peoples' votes. You need to look presidential. And Obama is the only presidential politician if his generation.

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