As Sean Trende notes, there are some pundits who think it's a positive portent that President Obama has not confronted a primary challenger – unlike Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. Yet as Trende further points out, the results in Arkansas and Kentucky (with the President drawing less than 60% of the vote against challengers like “uncommitted” or little-knowns) are functioning as a sort of “unprecedented” primary challenge.
Chris Cilliza reports that many Democrats privately attribute this week’s primary results to the residue of racism among Democrat primary voters (inverting the usual narrative of Republicans of being the reflexive racists!). To my mind, there’s no doubt race is playing a role in what’s going on . . . just not in the way that President Obama’s defenders think it is.
Look at this chart from nonpartisan Middlebury political science professor Matthew Dickinson -- headlined "Why History Suggests Obama Should Face a Primary Challenge." As Dickinson pointed out last August, the misery index -- coupled with the President's low approval ratings -- has historically meant there will be a primary challenge. Yet in this case none has emerged, despite mutterings from the left last autumn.
Why is this? Because of Democrat race-consciousness. There has been no Democrat (besides Cory Booker!) willing to challenge America's first black President. Of course, first, everyone knows that a challenge would ultimately be futile -- no Democrat can win without the African American vote (then again, one doubts Pat Buchanan seriously expected to take the oath of office in January 1993; he was still willing to challenge Bush from the right).
But second, and as significantly, few have forgotten the furious condemnation that was visited upon America's other "first black President" back in 2008 when he criticized Obama. Is anyone else (already much less beloved than Bill Clinton was at the time) really up for being accused of racism just to make a point a la Buchanan circa 1992 -- or jeopardize the relationship between the Democrats and African Americans long-term if a strong primary challenge ends up "softening up" the President for defeat in the fall?
In a sense, race may well be hurting Barack Obama -- but not in the way his supporters think it is. Rather than being the victim of ugly, insidious racial prejudice, the President may have been the victim of a race-conscious party that has feared calling out his shortcomings -- even in a way that might have actually helped him address them. Could Democrats have become victims of their own propaganda, i.e., actually beginning to believe that any criticism of someone who happens to be black is somehow tantamount to racism?