Since Pat Buchanan challenged George H.W. Bush in 1992, no incumbent President has faced a serious challenger. But that fact doesn’t mean unsatisfied party members should give up on the prospect. Ronald Reagan came awfully close in 1976 vs Gerald Ford and Ted Kennedy flirted with it too in 1980 against Jimmy Carter. Both campaigns were an indictment on Presidents that betrayed the core of their party and both candidates benefited from their decision. 1976 laid the foundations for Reagan’s 1980 win and Kennedy’s national exposure empowered him in the Senate, which in turn allowed him to join the spheres of Henry Clay and Lyndon B. Johnson for legislative accomplishments. With President Obama betraying liberals on the public option and with no change on Wall Street, Dean or Spitzer could shift Obama’s policies to the left if either of them challenged him for the 2012 Democratic nomination.
Because Dean has fiercely opposed the health-care plan, he has recently been a media darling with the Sunday shows, cable networks, and top newspapers giving him lots of airtime and space. The core of the Democratic party still holds him in high regards and doesn’t forget his steadfast opposition to the Iraq War when it wasn’t cool to do so. Regardless of what happens with health-care, voters won’t have many of its tangible benefits before 2012 and Afghanistan will only worsen. This would make a 2011 campaign run very attractive. The media has and always will love a good story and a Dean vs. Obama story would have much appeal. From Dean’s perspective, he’d certainly make Obama go left and who knows, maybe he could pull off the unthinkable.
Even more unthinkable than a Dean insurgency would be a Spitzer one. After all, it hasn’t even been two years since he was busted for frequenting a prostitute despite the fact that he made his political career targeting prostitution. But Americans have elastic, warm, fuzzy hearts. He could conquer the hypocrisy charge by mastering the Barbara Walters interview. And his followers will grow significantly if he propagates his anti-Wall Street beliefs. Pro-Wall Street or anti-Wall Street, educated or uneducated, anyone who saw Spitzer on Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square last March was impressed by his prescience and mastery of financial detail. He vituperated the US Treasury for making Goldman, JP Morgan, and the rest of them whole on the Credit Default Swaps. He explained why AIG, Merrill Lynch needed taxpayer support and discussed how he went after them before it was chic to do so. If there is anyone who can tap into America’s anger at Wall Street, it’d be him. Unlike labor or libertarians, he’s able to speak in opposition to Wall Street and still use Wall Street language. The odds of a Spitzer win are smaller than the low odds Dean would have, but like Dean, he’d force Obama to up his anti-Wall Streetness. And since that’s what he believes, he ought to force Obama’s hand.
Change in public policy emanates from many places. Events, editorials, books are just a few. But unsuccessful campaigns can successfully change the frame of policy debates too. For those that believe this health-care bill will do more good than bad or believe it will do more bad than good, can credit or blame John Edwards behind the change. In the Democratic primary, he came out with the most pro-government proposal, forcing the hands of Obama and Clinton to offer something similar. And so it might be that Dean or Spitzer can change domestic and/or international policy just by challenging Obama. And who knows, maybe one of them could win. Would anyone have guessed that a black man would be President in 2008, that Sarah Palin would have a real chance at VP and subsequently the Presidency? Politics lends itself to the unthinkable. Dean and Spitzer should give new meaning to that word. After all, Spitzer can indulge the never has there been a Jewish President…