Now that the midterm wipeout has concluded, analysts are already sizing up the GOP challengers to a weakened Barack Obama. Not only that: some Democratic party elders are considering the once-unthinkable scenario of a debilitating challenge to Barack Obama from inside his party — most likely from a disgruntled critic on the left. But in truth, Obama has little to fear there. It's an urban myth that any inter-party challenge to a president weakens him. George Wallace challenged Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Pete McCloskey ran against Richard Nixon in 1972 — both to little effect. Even Pat Buchanan's insurgency against George Bush in 1992 was far more symptom than cause of the incumbent's loss in November.
No, what Obama should fear is a challenge from a party heavyweight — as happened in 1968 with Johnson (Robert Kennedy), 1976 with Gerald Ford (Ronald Reagan), and 1980 with Jimmy Carter (Ted Kennedy). In each of those cases, the incumbent did eventually lose, which is why the real threat to Obama is Hillary Clinton, and maybe even a reborn Jerry Brown.
Of those three examples above, 1968 is the most relevant this time. It seemed impossible in early 1967 that Kennedy would challenge Johnson, just as it seems so unlikely now that the current sitting secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will defy Obama. But the bad economy is Obama's Vietnam War. (Yes, Larry Summers is Robert McNamara in this analogy, but that's for another column.) The longer it drags on, the more the party establishment will grow uneasy that Obama could pull a Samson and take everything down with him.
Already, a fair portion of the party mainstream is alienated from the administration. The moderates have seen their congressional wing decimated. Many were upset when Obama went to Rhode Island on October 25 and refused to endorse the Democratic candidate for governor because independent Lincoln Chafee had backed Obama in 2008. And few need reminding that Obama barely won the nomination in 2008 over Clinton. More than a few Democrats are experiencing a bad case of buyer's remorse.
The truth is that wresting the nomination away from Obama in 2012 under any circumstances would be a herculean task, just as it would have been against Johnson in 1968. He's still enormously popular in the black community and these voters will stick with him to the end. In the Democratic Party, they form a solid bloc of about 20 percent of the primary electorate, which would give Obama a formidable base to win against any challenger.
But unfortunately for the president, the rules of the Democratic Party encourage challenges, since they apportion delegates to any candidate who can gain only 15 percent in a congressional district. Attaining even that total consistently is probably well beyond a leftist or "peace" challenger such as Dennis Kucinich, Russell Feingold, or even Howard Dean — three names mentioned so far as possibilities. And even were they to do well and push Obama to the left or even win, the nominee would be fodder for the GOP in the fall — as Democratic insiders well know.