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Why Is Obama Trying to Crush Primaries That Would Help Him Overcome His Legislative Obstacles?

11/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I began writing my newspaper column this week, I thought I was going to write a piece on the hypocrisy inherent in President Obama using his power to try to crush primary challenges to Democratic incumbents. I find national politicians trying to pulverize local democracy nauseating -- and I find the efforts of Obama, himself a product of contested primaries, particularly hideous considering his own personal history.

However, by the time I was done, the column (which is out today), I realized the most significant news about Obama's democracy-crushing efforts in Pennsylvania, Colorado and New York is not what this says about his integrity (or lack thereof), but what it says about his political priorities.

As I point out in the column, strong Democratic primaries -- and more generally, the threat of strong Democratic primaries -- makes Democratic legislators feel more nervous about defying the president's Democratic agenda, for fear of losing a nomination fight. This has been proven over and over again. Most recently, it was proven when Sens. Arlen Specter (D-PA) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) strengthened their position on the public option almost immediately after primary challenges were announced against them. And most famously, this same dynamic was affirmed when Ned Lamont's Democratic primary victory over Joe Lieberman so scared every other Democratic incumbent that it changed the entire Democratic Party posture toward the Iraq War.

Based on this history, it's obvious that contested Democratic primaries would help President Obama tackle what clearly is his most challenging legislative obstacle in a Democratic Congress: No, not converting legislatively irrelevant Republicans, but instead, corralling recalcitrant Democrats.

And yet, the president is doing exactly the opposite -- using his power to try to crush those primaries instead of, for instance, simply staying out. Why?

That's a good question. It's clearly not because of any history that suggests contested primaries weaken eventual general-election nominees. Obama himself proves exactly the opposite -- his tough 2008 presidential primary clearly made him a stronger general-election candidate and the Democratic Party a stronger general-election apparatus. Likewise, as Sen. Jon Tester (D) openly acknowledges in The Uprising, the contested 2006 Montana primary made him a stronger candidate -- and had the party deferred to the D.C.-backed candidate in that primary, Democrats would almost certainly have lost the general election.

So, again, why is the White House trying to crush primaries? I'm not expecting him to back primary challengers...but why is he trying to crush them, instead of simply staying out of the races entirely? I mean, I get why incumbent Senators or House members don't want to face primaries - they just want an easy ride. The vexing question is why the president would try to help them crush primaries, when those primaries would help it pass its legislative agenda?

Maybe you just believe the president is a liar -- in other words, maybe you believe that the agenda he publicly endorses isn't really his actual agenda, and so him backing incumbents who make it harder to pass his public agenda is actually part of his secret plan to not pass that public agenda. Maybe that's part of it -- maybe (despite his public rhetoric to the contrary) the president really doesn't want a public option and therefore doesn't want to support a primary process that would help pass a public option. But as my column explains, I also think there are some other forces at work.


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