Time for a 2012 Democratic Primary Challenge?

karen bernal

Progressive Caucus Chair Karen Bernal moderating the discussion.

As Obama Administration Negotiates Away Democratic Party Principles – Time for a 2012 Primary Challenge?

We’ve had enough. The country has had enough.

As elated as we were when President Obama was elected in 2008, after a disastrous eight years under the repressive and war-mongering Bush Administration, the Obama Administration has been a major disappointment to the working class and Progressives of this country.

So much so that on July 30, the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party adopted a resolution criticizing President Obama for negotiating away Democratic Party principles to extremist Republicans, and suggesting that we may explore steps to “effect necessary change, including a possible primary challenge to President Obama.” The resolution, overwhelmingly adopted at a meeting of the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party July 30, did not say President Obama would not be that candidate.

The officers and members of the caucus are willing to meet with the President if he wishes to discuss our concerns. In fact, we would welcome the opportunity. Our Caucus leadership wishes HOPE BEYOND HOPE that President Obama will rework his priorities to respond to the needs of working class Americans in order to get progressive support in 2012.

Calling for a possible challenge to President Obama wasn’t an easy step to take. We keenly understand, and like all Democrats and the majority of Americans, appreciate the historical significance of his presidency. That people from all walks of life worked very hard to get him into office is testament to where we have come as a nation and as a people, when we can all unify behind a candidate regardless of race.

Even now, we can say that despite the difficulties we are facing, the memory of reaching and passing the milestone of electing the first African-American President is still sweet; though, that memory becomes quickly replaced with profound unhappiness when we consider the current state of affairs.

After the President’s unilateral offer in a closed door session to slash Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, thereby endangering the New Deal and War on Poverty safety nets, we could no longer remain silent. It was simply too much.

So has been the escalation of U.S. militarism, secret drone attacks, the extension of tax cuts for the wealthy, the bank bail outs – but allowing foreclosures to continue, the assault on our civil liberties through the extension of the Patriot Act, a disregard for the promises to labor, the facilitation of an increased corporatization of our public sphere, and a host of other issues that benefit big business and the wealthy, but ignore the plight of working families and the environment.

Progressives are challenged by President Obama’s decisions. Our silence is a price that’s too high to pay.

Some have said to me that this resolution questioning our President may weaken his chances in 2012, and possibly lead to a Republican president. But the truth is, as you analyze the Obama Administration domestic and international decisions, we already have many Republican policies.

If there is a primary challenge it is not without precedent. President Lyndon Johnson was challenged over his escalation in the Vietnam War in the 60s by Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy.

And, as we said in the resolution, we do not want to interfere with President Obama’s ability to govern. Will this raise debate on important issues? Yes. Will this mobilize and energize the base of our Democratic Party to stop the far-right agenda to destroy the working class? Yes.

In fact, we do not see ourselves as being against President Obama as much as we see ourselves as defenders of traditional, core Democratic Party principles. And the choice, we believe, has become increasingly clear: Loyalty to founding principles we hold dear in the Democratic Party, or loyalty to a President at the expense of those principles.

In the end, we hope this resolution starts a very honest conversation about the direction of the Party, something we believe is crucial at this moment in time. Of course, the strategy for progressives pushing for a badly needed paradigm shift for our country needs to include making sure we are part of any driving force at the grassroots level with other electoral efforts, as well as actively participating in social movements designed to take on a heartless corporatocracy.

This isn’t a choice of either/or; we simply do not have that luxury anymore. If we are to bring our country back from the precipice of total disaster, the pushback will have to happen on multiple fronts, from the bottom, all the way to the top.

Passed July 30, 2011
Anaheim, CA

WHEREAS, the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party recognizes the challenge presented by President Obama’s negotiating away Democratic Party principles to extremist Republicans, we are challenged by President Obama in the following ways:

  • His unilateral closed-door budget offer to slash Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which endangers the New Deal and War on Poverty safety nets.
  • His determination to escalate U.S. militarism through illegal secret CIA drone attacks and unauthorized wars.
  • His willingness to extend the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and bail out big banks without ending the foreclosure crisis that displaces American working families.
  • His insistence on pushing a health insurance bill which enriches private insurance companies while ignoring growing support for single-payer health care or robust public options.
  • His continuance of President Bush’s assault on civil liberties with an extension of the repressive Patriot Act.
  • His failure to restore due process, including the protection of whistleblowers and habeas corpus.
  • His numerous failures to adhere to international law.
  • The continuing practice of nationwide FBI raids of anti-war progressive protestors.
  • His decision to increase the arrests and deportations of undocumented workers.
  • His facilitation of the privatizing of the public sphere, which includes education and housing, among others.
  • His disregard of his promises to the Labor movement.
  • His failure to adequately protect the environment and adequately address climate change.

WHEREAS, the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party recognizes the historical significance of the Eugene McCarthy/Robert F. Kennedy anti-war challenge to President Lyndon Johnson. The challenge followed President Johnson’s decision to escalate U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, betraying his campaign promise to end a war that polarized America. Similarly, we recognize the danger and betrayal that the current “Grand Bargain” represents to the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signature gift to all Americans, Social Security and the New Deal, a point of pride for all Democrats.

WHEREAS, the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party is committed to the understanding that an interest in a 2012 Democratic presidential primary challenge will not interfere with President Obama’s ability to govern and not limit his ability to do so in ways that include invoking Constitutional options, we recognize that this will, in fact, raise debate on important issues without risking the ability to mobilize and energize the base of the Democratic Party to elect a triumphant leader to counter the far-right agenda.

karen bernalTHEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, to make our views heard, the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party will begin the process of contacting other Democratic organizations, Democratic Party members and public organizations that share our views on the issues and which seek to alter the course of history by exploring other steps to effect a necessary change, including a possible primary challenge to President Obama.

Karen Bernal
Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party

Karen Bernal is the two term Chair of the Progressive Caucus of the California State Democratic Party, as well as a member of the Party’s Executive Board. She is also an elected member of the Sacramento County Democratic Party, and Co-founder of the Wellstone Progressive Democrats of Sacramento County.

Republished with the author’s permission from California Progress Report.


  1. thearcher77 says

    I question whether California should vote karen bernal out of her position for her lack of political savvy !! We voted for change in 2008 for President of the USofA not for a King and what we got afterward was plenty of bluedog democrats and conservatives voting against PresidentObama. I will venture out even more and say those on the left who supported and voted for Hillary Clinton were are and maybe still upset which got us no where even when we were the majority …not even because the numbers of dems voted against … were many … I would like to know who karen bernal supported and voted for. We have a challenge ahead of us a system that is broken and a chance to make changes but like always people who call themselves Dems are much more into self sabotage then making some change happen. I and a whole lot of voters want you and the rest of those dems in Congress or heads of dem caucus’s to nudge dems in Congress to do their jobs. The change we need is in Congress -I see a whole lot being kicked to the curb …ASAP

  2. Cheryl Smith says

    I was a registered Democrat for 30 years but wishy washey values and not wanting to balance the budget , like I’m required to do for myself have turned me off the Democratic ticket

  3. notfooled says

    Push Obama from within? Inner FDR?


    What he heck are you smoking?

    He’s been politely criticized on every bad move from the inadequately sized and directed stimulus, Geither appointment (and now re-appointment) to the recent debt ceiling deal, and EVERYTHING in between.

    He ain’t budging because he ain’t one of us, plain and simple. And it’s not just reflected in his policies it is entirely reflected in his rhetoric.

    Progressives who believe this president can be “pushed internally” or has an “inner FDR” really are as Rahm Emanuel said, “f***ing retarded.”

    If he hasn’t earned a primary challenge, no Democratic president ever has or ever will.

  4. Craig says

    The Democrats and Republicans organize money not people . It would be revolutionary for progressives to organize people even if its just setting up a mass email and other communication systems along the primary path . Put these tools into the hands of local progressives and you might be doing something beyond the campaign promise routine of candidate centered politics.
    We should have known Obama was going to be problematic when we found out that he smokes.

  5. says

    Bravo Karen! A start on way overdue action! And it will need follow-thru. He now may well try to sweet-talk real Dems, but from Obama we’ve seen a too long and too consistent (and too voluntary, not compelled) pattern of a DINO, a Republican (or maybe just a plain nothing) masquerading as a Democrat.

    Commenter Brad’s position is the clueless one about the real lessons of 1968. It was thanks to the primary challenges and campaigns that the Democratic party re-energized, saved its soul and integrity, and once again could and did stand for other than Republican-lite – and despite all sorts of catastrophes almost won. (With McCarthy bumped out by Kennedy and then Kennedy assassinated, the Dems were stuck with running a once proud but now sad stooge of the utterly discredited Lyndon Johnson – who himself likely would have lost anyway even with no primary challenge.)

    In response to Commenter Illes: Obama has had a good long time to use the most powerful office on earth to get in touch with and enact the desires of his true ‘inner self”, and it’s turned out to be nothing like an ‘inner FDR’. For just one example: FDR and co. recognized the futility of the War on Alcohol, and lost little time taking practical steps to end it; Obama and co., oblivious to the lessons learned and actions taken already decades ago by FDR, instead press on with the costly gang-enabling cartel-enabling War on Drugs.

    The 2012 choice is NOT between Obama and total Republican control. With or without Obama – and especially if the Democrats self-re-energize by running a real Dem in place of Obama – Democrats and independents can turn out to keep the Senate Democratic and reverse the House too.

  6. brad says

    There are some clueless folks here. They reference the 1968 challenge of McCarthy and Kennedy without aknowledging that the result of that election was a Republican President–Richard Nixon. So they are willing to risk a President Bachmann or Romney? Some of these folks are the Tea Party of the left–they have such a strong desire to push an agenda that they believe harming the country is worth it to try to make a point (If I jump from this bridge, that will teach them).

    • Henry Frankel says

      Let’s face it, unless we do something soon, in 2012 we will be faced with the choice of our Democratic Wall Street Whore/Goldman Sachs employee vs the Republican version serving the same masters with the added repugnant overlay of psychotic delusional fascism. Obama has consistently betrayed his liberal base with Chamberlain style appeasement prior to beginning negotiations on any and all important issues. He’s a so-called Constitutional scholar who let a bevy of blood soaked war criminals free to chortle and malaprop their way through multimillion dollar book deals without fear of prosecution. He actually increased the deprivation of civil rights under the Patriot Act, and pissed on Ted Kennedy’s grave by taking the single payer system “off the table”and squandering the precious first 100 days of his term trying to pick up 3 Republican votes so he would have a “ bipartisan” bill that benefited insurance companies that still turned against him. I frankly do not have the stomach to vote once again for the lesser of two evils and the majority of my peers feel the same way. Obama doesn’t deserve a second term and the the only way he’ll get one is if a certified lunatic slips through the Republican primary process. I’m in the process of printing some “ Blame Me. I should have voted for Hillary” bumper stickers. While her mention of “ a vast right wing conspiracy” was criticized as over the top, we now know it was a tragically demure understatement. If she could be persuaded to resign the only semi-credible position in this pathetic administration, I’m positive that she could trample him in the primaries and with Bad Bill in her corner the numbskulls and wing nuts on the other side could be swept away. While that may be a disillusioned socialist fantasy, the future of the Democratic party requires a primary challenge to hold Obama’s feet to the fire to at the very least throw Tim Geithner under the bus and replace him with Robert Reich, and not just “keep hope alive” but take it off the life support of life long Democrats who have lost the ability to hold their noses and vote at the same time. (Oh, and by the way, if RFK hadn’t hadn’t his brains blown out within 2 hours of winning the California primary, and for all practical purposes, the Democratic Nomination, Nixon would have lost in a landslide.)

    • Gregory says

      The DISILLUSION with Obama on the part of progressives is actually because so many of us buy the ILLUSION that presidential elections can be transformative. This is an old, discarded theory of political change, but many voters still seem to believe it. We live in an ever-expanding empire of global capital and no president can change that reality. It’s been this way for a very long time; the Democrats are incapable of challenging the system and so are the Republicans. The only things that national elections can change are small in their impacts, but that shouldn’t prevent us from voting. It’s always been “the lesser of two evils.” For thos who want to hasten the internal destruction of the Democrats once again I ask them to do one thing: Think President Rick Perry.

  7. says

    Primary him with WHO? Obama needs to be privately nudged to get in touch with his inner FDR, if it’s there, but I choose Obama over ANY of the Republicans in the race. Why make now make it all the more difficult by public squabbling? The Rethugs already seem to be doing that. Supreme Court seats are at stake. Dem voters already got turned off my irate progressive pundits, such that they stayed away in November 2010. That really worked well. NOT. I fear this is totally playing with fire, as much as I agree and am equally frustrated by Obama’s restraint (to be kind). Push Obama from within, and meanwhile get progressives elected from schoolboards on up.

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