ALL ACROSS America, liberals have been engaged in a debate over the enthusiasm with which to support President Obama’s reelection. One side argues that while Obama might not have been the second coming of FDR, he was dealt an impossible hand; Republicans obstructed everything Obama tried, which forced him to attempt to compromise. The other side faults Obama for often behaving like a Republican lite rather than fighting for the things for which liberals and Democrats have stood. Complaints notwithstanding, these folks will likely pull the lever for him come November, but they are less excited about doing so than they were four years ago, which may very well affect his prospects.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because there was a similar argument in 1980 over Jimmy Carter. Carter too was accused by liberal stalwarts of campaigning to promote a liberal agenda in 1976 only to abandon it while governing and of gutlessly buckling to the right, not only because he lacked political skill but also because he lacked political will. Many liberals felt betrayed then as they do today. But there is one major difference between 1980 and 2012. While Obama will coast to the nomination despite the liberal griping, Carter found himself challenged by the left of his own party in the candidacy of Senator Edward Kennedy.
Kennedy aggressively made a case against Carter that could easily be made against Obama as well: That he is insufficiently devoted to the traditional values of the Democratic Party to deserve liberal support. Which raises the question: Is there a legitimate reason for liberals not to vote for Obama?
Harkening back to that earlier election, Kennedy charged Carter with having abandoned liberalism for expediency. “He has left behind the best traditions of the Democratic Party’’ Kennedy declared, and turned himself into a “pale carbon copy’’ of the then Republican front-runner, Ronald Reagan. As Kennedy saw it, Carter had rejected a real national health care program for an incremental one that Congress could later abandon. He had refused to take on oil companies that were, Kennedy felt, robbing the American people. And he had forsaken the Democratic tradition of using government to put people to work and embraced instead the old Republican mantra of cutting deficits. Many, of course, have made similar arguments against Obama.
Not surprisingly, Carter decried Kennedy’s campaign as self-serving and ultimately self-destructive. What Carter failed to recognize is that Kennedy wasn’t only making the case for why Carter shouldn’t get the Democratic nomination; he was also making a liberal case for why he might not deserve to beat Reagan either. Kennedy believed that principles compromised might very well be principles destroyed, and while he wound up dutifully campaigning for Carter, one sensed that he suspected Reagan’s election might actually revivify liberalism - stiffen its back.
As his own campaign neared its end, he began calling it a “cause,’’ by which he meant the cause of sustaining the forces of liberalism and buttressing the last remaining liberal institution: the Democratic Party. In short, he seemed less worried about Reagan destroying liberalism temporarily than he was about Carter sapping it permanently.
To Obama’s diehards, this smacks of Voltaire’s old adage that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and they adduce the Supreme Court justices a Republican president would appoint, the social programs he would slash, and the rancor he would inevitably fuel.
If you are a liberal, these aren’t necessarily bad reasons to vote for Obama come November. But if you believe in the vitality of a robust Rooseveltian liberalism that can stand up to the right wing, then you might worry that Obama, by transforming the Democratic Party from an instrument for change into an instrument of compromise, and by legitimizing Republican talking points like deficit reduction over job creation, has fatally damaged progressivism - something far more important than the election prospects of any particular candidate. While his partisans say he had no choice, Obama seemed willing to burn down the Democratic Party to save it. Or at least he lit a match. And that may be the point today just as it was in the election 32 years ago. Sometimes, Ted Kennedy once famously declared, you have to sail against the wind. Sometimes you have to defy the conventional wisdom and sacrifice a candidate for a cause. For some liberals, those who believe in the good fight, this may turn out to be one of those times, just as 1980 was for Ted Kennedy.
Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.’’