For most of 2012, President Obama has been running in the Democratic primary. I know that seems odd, given that he’s essentially running unopposed — though don’t tell that to West Virginia Democrats, who cast nearly half of their votes for Keith Judd, an inmate currently serving time in a Texarkana, Texas, prison. Judd received 41 percent of the vote; in 1968, Eugene McCarthy received 42 percent of the vote in New Hampshire and forced incumbent Lyndon Johnson from the race.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s important to remember that primaries serve other functions than just picking the nominee. Primaries force party bosses, activists, and strategists to test their messaging, update their databases, and, most especially, get the party’s fundraising apparatus going.
During the real Republican primary, all of that stuff was going on behind the curtain while everyone was busy watching the actual contest. The Republicans didn’t need to fake anything in order to switch on the party machinery. They had a primary season that made a wacky Mexican soap opera seem like Masterpiece Theatre by comparison. Republicans, for good and ill, were paying a lot of attention. And so was the press corps. There were enough GOP debates alone to program a new cable network.
Meanwhile, Obama was politically sidelined. Sure, he got attention; presidents always do. But the rank and file wasn’t engaging in the contest enough.
Nearly everything we’ve seen from Obama in the last five months has been an attempt to re-create the institutional benefits of a primary season without having an actual opponent.
Peddling “stop the war on women” propaganda, visiting college campuses often enough to get on the meal plan, making the “Buffett Rule” into the centerpiece of his domestic policy, trying to bribe students with breaks on their student loans, inserting himself into the Trayvon Martin case: These were all efforts to get the base of the Democratic party reengaged with the presidential race.
And to raise cash, of course. There’s a “money primary” for incumbents, too, as evidenced by Obama’s unprecedented fundraising efforts. Indeed, according to data compiled by Brendan J. Doherty for his new book, The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign, Obama has had more reelection fundraising events than all the previous incumbent presidents since Richard Nixon — combined.
And that’s where the irony of Obama’s entirely disingenuous about-face on gay marriage really kicks in. Oh, I don’t think Obama is disingenuous about his support for gay marriage; if anything, he supports it far more than he admitted to ABC News. I think he’s disingenuous about its being an about-face.
Obama had to admit he was in favor of gay marriage because he was, in effect, forced to by an unexpected money-primary opponent: Joe Biden. Biden’s off-message support for gay marriage on Meet the Press made the figurative Democratic primary seem almost literal for a second. Biden got to Obama’s left, and it was killing the president with the segment of his base that matters most to him right now: super-rich liberal donors. These donors care about gay marriage a lot, and not just because roughly one out of six of Obama’s biggest bundlers are openly gay, according to the Washington Post.
Obama’s fundraiser at George Clooney’s house promised to be a tense and less than lucrative affair if he continued to let his vice president make him look like a politically vacillating wimp or a bigot in the eyes of his supporters. And so he ’fessed up to supporting gay marriage. His claim that he considers it a states’-rights issue is surely hogwash. (If he believed that, his administration would still be defending the Defense of Marriage Act.) But he said the words, which is all he needs to get the money spigots turned back on.
The question now is whether he moved too far left in the virtual Democratic primary to get back to the center in the real general election. In 2008, Obama never really pivoted to the center, because he didn’t need to. As a post-partisan higher being, he could claim to be above the old-fashioned politics of triangulation. Now he’s an incumbent president with a very shaky record, running as the authentic left-winger his critics always believed him to be. Indeed, he may have no interest in moving to the center at all.
– Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO.