It’s not news that there are people on the “progressive” side who cannot stand Barack Obama. Well now, the angries have got themselves a plan, and maybe even a poster child. But do they have a candidate?
In recent weeks, the increasing vitriol between progressive/liberal/libertarian opponents, and supporters of President Barack Obama have been lighting up the Twittersphere.
There’s the growing rift over racial insensitivity in some of the anti-Obama critique – centering on who is Obama’s “base” - which has pitted black and white Twitterzens led by Balloon Juice blogger AngryBlackLady and her supporters against Salon editor Joan Walsh and her supporters, including most recently, a ThinkProgress blogger named Zaid Jilani.
There’s Glenn Greenwald’s rather Nixonian enemies list, which he says consists of 30 Twitterzens who spend all their time attacking him (for spending so much of his time attacking the president while sliming anyone who doesn’t attack the president as mindless Obama cultists…) though he refuses to name names.
And there’s the ongoing Obama-slam by big-time Tweeters like filmmaker Michael Moore (@MMflint) and liberal radio talk host David Sirota (@davidsirota), with Moore even launching his own conspiracy theory that the Pakistanis gave the U.S. Osama bin Laden to be “executed”, because he had outlived his usefulness to the “war on terror.”
The most aggressive anti-Obama action is to be found in three places: among an group of highly influential blogs connected to Jane Hamsher’s Firedoglake and its associated FDL Action PAC and knit together via Hamsher’s advertising network; from Greenwald, Moore and other libertarian-leaning activists who oppose Obama’s war and national security policies (which they say are too close to George W. Bush’s); and from Adam Green’s Progressive Campaign Change Committee PAC, which has spent as much time attacking the president as it has advertising against Republicans.
To pro-Obama liberals, these are the “firebaggers” — as vehemently and reflexively anti-Obama as any tea partyer, and when confronted, often just as nasty. It’s thought that some of them, like Hamsher, are into Obama-bashing for the link bait and the cash, while others appear to be true believers in the third party cause, including Greenwald and former Ralph Nader supporters like Moore.
Up to now, one of the things the anti-Obama progressive movement has lacked is diversity, giving them the appearance of an all-white jihad against the first black president. (Hamsher’s history, punctuated by her now infamous “blackface” post attacking Joe Lieberman, doesn’t help.) In a way, that’s a function of the fact that for decades, the leading voices on the left, from its magazines to its radio shows (the liberal talk network Air America, from which MSNBC drew part of its on-air liberal lineup, had no solo black or Hispanic hosts until it signed daytime talk host Montel Williams just before the network folded in 2010, and there remains only one black nationally syndicated liberal talk radio host: The Black Eagle Joe Madison, who is syndicated by African-American owned Radio One) to its top bloggers, have been conspicuously monochrome. A recent Forbes list of the 25 most influential liberals in the U.S. contained only four people of color: Oprah Winfrey, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (who is Salvadoran and Greek), Matthew Yglesias (who is of Hispanic and Jewish background) and Fareed Zakaria (who on the list has the distinction of being both Indian, and not really a liberal…)
For the “FDLers,” the perception of theirs being an “all white” attack on the first black president presents a particular problem, since Democratic candidates, including Obama, are typically propelled into office on the strength of the unanimous support of black voters, and the two-thirds backing of Hispanics.
Last week, the anti-Obama progressive saw an opening to change that dynamic, when the ongoing verbal war that two African-Americans: pundit Tavis Smiley and his mentor, Princeton professor Cornel West, have been waging against Barack Obama since 2007 boiled over.
A long-time coming
Smiley and West have disliked Obama since he announced for president in Springfield, Illinois on the same day Smiley hosted his annual “State of Black America” conference. Skipping Smiley’s conference earned the then Senator Smiley’s enduring disdain. He and West became even more vehement after Obama rebuked his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, over inflammatory sermons which surfaced in the midst of the Democratic primary (and were wielded by the Clinton campaign as they hunted for superdelegates.) I attended a talk Smiley gave in the wake of Obama’s historic speech on race, in which a red-faced Smiley silenced the room at the Broward Convention Center with a broadside so angry and so personal, it left people gasping.
Smiley’s rage at Obama became so conspicuous, he eventually resigned from his weekly commentary spot on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, and later seemed to burn down the bridge to Joyner entirely when he was invited back on in 2010, going on a tirade that prompted the first of many flare-ups with Rev. Al Sharpton.
Undeterred, Smiley, who had been a Hillary Clinton supporter during the presidential primary, has continued to slam the president, including during his weekly show for Public Radio International, and in a podcast series he and Dr. West put out periodically, called “Smiley and West.”
West’s critiques of Obama as ignoring not just black Americans, but also poor people, have ebbed and flowed over the years. According to the book “The Bridge” by David Remnick, after an intervention by Harvard professor Charles Ogletree in 2007, West softened his opposition, and even held a series of discussions with Obama and other black intellectuals, including Michael Eric Dyson, in which the then-candidate tried to create detente.
It didn’t hold. West reportedly fumed at a lack of access to the newly elected president (and to his inability to get inaugural tickets.) He fumed over Obama naming his former Harvard nemesis Larry Summers as the president’s top economic adviser over West’s strong objections. By late 2010, began denouncing Obama in increasingly vitriolic terms; calling his policies racist against blacks, and calling the president a black “mascot” of Wall Street and a “black puppet” of the oligarchs, leading to further condemnation of West by fellow African-Americans, and culminating in this eye-opening sleight against something Obama cannot control; his parentage:
“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West said. “It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white…When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening.”
… plus an equally undignified slur that Obama feels most comfortable around “upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want.”
[Sidebar: West's most recent attacks have led to blistering counter-attacks by the Rev. Al Sharpton, during a heated debate on MSNBC in which West also tossed the "mascot" smear at Shapton; and in a recent Huffington Post piece in which Sharpton called out those who are tossing spitballs at the president from their ivory tower while real activists work in the trenches. Read fellow Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Perry's blistering takedown of Dr. West here, and catch Dr. Boyce Watkins innuendo-laced personal attack on Professor Harris-Perry here. And Ironically, West's broadsides have made him the perfect -- er -- mascot, for the "progressive" anti-Obamaites, one of whom, an FDL diarist who goes by the handle "Metamars" -- even saw an opportunity to put West on the front lines, to "educate" ... the "Afro-Americans" to understand that Obama is "not their friend."]
Primary the president!
West’s vitriol included a call last November for someone to step forward and primary Obama from within the Democratic party. The call roughly coincided with an “election” held by a group of activists whose goal was to do just that: field a potential “progressive” primary candidate against Obama.
Indeed, the idea of primarying the president has been a hot diary topic on FDL since at least 2010. In February of that year, in response to the signing of the healthcare reform bill, a 527 called the New Progressive Alliance was formed:
In February 2010, even before President Obama formally approved his party’s gift of 40 million more customers to Big Insurance, blogger “Masoninblue” posted this invitation to readers of The Seminal, a site at FireDogLake (FDL), to join him in forming a new Progressive party. In late March, he and five other Seminal bloggers and readers formed an online group to incubate the process. They supported strict adherence to the basic tenets of Progressivism, and even chose a name – New Progressive Alliance.
Differences in approach soon surfaced, however. One member strongly espoused a highly theoretical approach wherein the new party advocated a complete overthrow of the current system of representation. Others felt the focus should be on electoral activism which emphasized the Progressive values distinguishing the new party from the Democrats.
Fast forward to September. With the 2010 midterms approaching, calls for electoral opposition to Obama in 2012 increased at The Seminal (soon to be re-named MyFDL). Diarist jeffroby launched an effort called “Dump Obama.” Anthony Noel, one of those in the fledgling New Progressive Alliance group who supported electoral activism, pushed for a vow from midterm voters to write in “Public Option,” rather than vote for any incumbent House or Senate Democrat – 90 of whom caved on their own demand that such an option be included in any health reform bill coming up for a vote.
Then, days before the Democrats’ epic midterm defeat, jeffroby asked Seminal readers to nominate potential primary challengers to Obama. After the midterms, Noel followed suit. The resulting nominee lists were combined, and readers voted for their ten preferred challengers…
So this group, whose preliminary goal was to help bring about the defeat of Democrats in the 2010 midterms, has now turned its efforts squarely on the president.
The New Progressive Alliance and its leader, the FDL diarist Anthony Noel (@NewProgs on Twitter), have been quite explicit about their strategy, which J Clifford of the blog Irregular Times (who sympathizes with the “anti-Obama progressive” cause, and who wrote up the NPA’s organizing in Iowa last week) described in a somewhat skeptical post:
… The New Progressive Alliance is a group of Americans who are upset at Barack Obama’s abandonment as President of the liberal agenda that got him elected in 2008. The organization is hoping to recruit and support a presidential candidate who will adhere to liberal policy priorities, running first as a Democratic primary candidate against Barack Obama, and then as a third party or independent candidate for President in the 2012 general election. [Emphasis added]
Clifford raises a good point, since while it should come as no surprise that the anti-Obama progressives, who often merge ideologically with Libertarians, would want to take their distaste into 2012 in the form of a primary challenge to a Democratic president, one wonders why they would bother to mount such a challenge from inside the Democratic party, when much of this crowd prides itself on not being Democrats. Indeed, as Clifford points out, Hamsher, who made the group’s list of dream candidates, has given to exactly two Democratic candidates in the past. And the most notable feature of anti-Obama progressives like Greenwald, Sirota and Moore, is their utter contempt for anyone marginally loyal to the Democratic Party.
Clifford’s skepticism was based on something else, however:
My first reaction to word of this New Progressive Alliance is enthusiasm. As a genuine liberal, rather than a Democratic Party loyalist, I’m outraged with the thoroughness with which Barack Obama has cast aside the promises of liberal policy he used to gain the Democratic nomination and to win the White House in 2008. So, I’d love to see a strong liberal candidate challenge Obama in the 2012 presidential election.
My second, and more reasonable, reaction is skepticism. What’s to stop a New Progressive Alliance candidate from using the liberal group like Barack Obama used liberal activists in 2008, and then cast them aside like Obama did? What, for that matter, would stop the New Progressive Alliance from using liberal activist enthusiasm for the profit of its leaders? What is this New Progressive Alliance, who is running it, and what’s it really up to?
Good questions, particularly given the financial web that ties FDL in particular — through both its political action committees and its advertising network, Common Sense Media, to the bloodstream of the liberal blogosphere. Despite the fringiness of the notion of “primarying” a president with solid enough approval ratings that no top tier Republicans appear to want to run against him, the potential reach of an FDL-based effort within the liberal blogosophere — much of which at the top tier is at least partially dependent on Jane Hamsher for revenue — is wider than you might think.
Further, this group has constant access to cable news, where people like Hamsher, Greenwald and Green are frequently booked as placeholders for “Obama’s base.” And no one doubts that an Obama primary effort would be quickly amplified by the Drudge Report counterpart Huffington Post, now housed at AOL, and by other conflict-hungry media.
[Sidebar 2: This group has proven its ability to successfully flog a meme before. FDL, amplified by Greenwald, is where the Bradley Manning "torture" meme came from -- both David House, who accused the Marines of "torturing" Manning, and the psychologist who claims that the conditions Manning was housed in at Quantico were torturous, though he never personally examined Manning, are FDL diarists.]
As to Clifford’s second question, who the NPA people are:
Their original four-person steering committee consisted of anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, 2002 “Green Rainbow Party” candidate for governor (you can’t make this stuff up) Dr. Jill Stein, committed Libertarian Richard Winger (whose only run for elected office was in California in 1996 as a Libertarian,) and our old friend Dr. Cornel West. In fact, if one were cynical, one might even think West’s November cry for a primary challenge was timed in coordination with the push just one month later, by a group he “steers” to do just that. And when the story, and the idea, failed to catch on, West turned up the heat on Obama again this spring, coincidentally giving fresh exposure to NPA’s primary idea… but of course, that would be cynical…
According to the site, three more members, Paul Barrow, Alan Maki, and David Swanson, were added to the steering committee in February . Maki and Swanson are bloggers, while Barrow is a founding member of something called United Progressives, which Barrow describes on the organization’s website this way:
A policy group was formed following the end of the 2008 Presidential bid of Dennis Kucinich by seven people from his campaign who sought ways to advance the objectives of progressives through alternative avenues. It was clear, through our experience with the campaign and from long experience with the American system of government, that change was needed. American citizens are not being adequately represented.
One of the alternatives our policy project decided to act upon is United Progressives, a union intended to unite progressives on issues rather than candidates. By uniting progressives on issues rather than candidates, we believe that the change we seek in our lives and to our political system of government is possible.
So we’ve got Kucinich campaign veterans, Hamsherites and Libertarians. And their genius plan is to convince some Democrat, presumably, to commit political suicide by primarying the country’s first black president, and then use that bid to launch an even more politically suicidal third party campaign, whose only conceivable result, even if it had any chance of succeeding, would be to help elect whatever Republican were to get that party’s nomination.
So who are the FDL/NPA dream candidates for president, as determined by their “voters” last November? It’s there that we find the real weakness in their effort:
1. Elizabeth Warren
2. Russ Feingold
4. Howard Dean
4. Richard Trumka
5. Alan Grayson
6. Cynthia McKinney
7. Al Franken
8. Paul Krugman
9. Dennis Kucinich
10. Jane Hamsher
More interesting than the rather ridiculous list — which essentially consists of people who would either a) never primary Obama because they are Obama supporters (Franken, Feingold, Warren, Dean); b) aren’t realistic presidential candidates in the real world since they’d be hard pressed to win a single Congressional district, let alone the White House (Grayson, Kucinich, McKinney); c) aren’t politicians and have shown no desire to be (Krugman, Trumka); or d) are Jane Hamsher — is the group’s overall goal, as explained by Mr. Noel:
Voting occurred at MyFDL last Wednesday and Thursday in the effort to determine likely leaders of a two-stage strategy aimed at substantively changing the way politics is done in this country.
This particular strategy – just one of many being discussed and debated throughout the Lefty blogosphere – aims to leverage the attention lavished on politics throughout the 15- to 18-month period leading up to a presidential election. It seeks to apply the existing electoral process to the goal of replacing – or displacing – the once-proud Democratic Party with a new political entity that will again strongly and unremittingly represent Lefty ideology at the national level.
Noel is not so naive as to see the pitfalls in a strategy that aims to “replace” the Democratic Party by finding what is essentially a mole, who will run in a Democratic primary against a sitting president knowing that they intend to exit the party and run as an independent in the end — thus ending their own political career. He laments that NPA is stuck with the strategy nonetheless, due to the choices of their “voters”:
The other thing I found striking has been noted elsewhere: The utterly party-line Democratic nature of many finalists. While it remains to be seen who if any among these preferred choices will agree to run as both a Dem and the nominee of the new party we hope to forge, it is nonetheless noteworthy that voters picked (what I consider at least) a large number of entrenched Dems.
And while this is just my take – and while I will support any candidate who understands our rationale and platform, and who agrees in writing to our terms for their candidacy – I believe that if fundamental change is going to come, whether in the form of retaking the Democratic Party or the founding of a new party to replace it, that party will require strong and vocal leadership from the full Lefty spectrum, meaning an overwhelming majority of people who are no longer willing to accept the “lesser of two evils” and simply pull the big “D” lever, year in and year out.
Other FDLers have realized the folly of Noel’s dream and have since launched new plans with no chance of gaining popular support, like NoBama petitions that sound suspiciously tea party-like.
But make no mistake, any pretense that this is an effort to “push the president to the left” but otherwise prevent Republicans from taking the White House, is dashed by the group’s own expressed platform. This group wants candidates from the Democratic Party, as presently constituted, to lose elections, so that they can build up some new, better party, from the ashes (which given the current positioning of the Republican Party, means the ashes of Medicare, Social Security, and the rest of the social safety net.)
So how many people are a part of this effort (which the folks at ThePeoplesView rightly term “the full Lieberman”?) Let’s look at the voting:
Ballots cast: 64
Votes cast: 626
Distinct candidates voted for: 109
Wait … 64 thousand??? 64 hundred??? Nope. 64 people. Mr. Noel wants to replace the collective judgment of 63.7 million people, including tens of millions of liberals and Democrats who voted for Barack Obama with the *superior* judgment of 64 people, along with a few dozen others who didn’t even bother to fully participate in his contest:
It helps to remember that we sought the 10 top preferences of each voter, using IRV (instant runoff voting) to determine the place finishers. So, with 64 individual voters participating and choosing 10 preferred candidates, there was the potential for 640 total votes. Though the vast majority of voters filled all ten of their ballot’s slots, a few did not – thus the slightly lower total of 626 votes cast.
… Opinion/analysis: Just in tabulating the ballots, it was clear that people took a lot of time considering their choices. And while 64 individual “voters” is a decent turnout, two things surprised me:
(1) Just over one-third of all voters (23) did NOT participate in any of the five nominating threads, and
(2) Nearly three-fifths – that’s right, MORE THAN HALF – of the 91 people who did participate in the nominating threads did not vote!
Noel’s “strategy” — while clearly elitist, and not very popular, mirrors the thinking of people like Greenwald, who in a talk with libertarian students on the day after last fall’s elections advocated the melding of Libertarian and liberal interests, including in the form of a hybrid ticket of Republican/Libertarian Gary Johnson and Democrat Russ Feingold (who seems to be quite popular with this crowd, though all indications are that his mostly likely next run would be for Wisconsin governor — as a Democrat.)
Of course, if a Republican were to beat Barack Obama next November, the advertising value of FDL and other “progressive” web sites would increase exponentially. They would see an increase in pageviews and revenue akin to what Fox News, Redstate and the like got out of Obama’s election in 2008. In fact, the far left crowd would be relevant again, in a way that they simply aren’t now.
So let’s see if Noel and friends can find someone to be their candidate who wouldn’t be immediately dismissed as a kook (Cynthia McKinney recently taped a radio interview calling Obama a “war criminal” for participating in the NATO effort against Muommar Gaddafi), or who wouldn’t immediately run the other way from this crowd and nix any talk of primarying the president, as Feingold or Warren or Dean certainly would.
Come to think of it … why not Cornel West???