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Progressives Vow to Challenge Obama in Democratic Primaries


Progressive leaders led by Ralph Nader and Cornel West unveiled a proposal today to challenge President Obama in the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries in 2012.

The proposal, which has been endorsed by over 45 distinguished leaders, seeks to have a slate of six candidates run against President Obama, each representing a field in which Obama has never clearly staked a progressive claim or where he has drifted toward the corporatist right.

“Without debates by challengers inside the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries, the liberal/majoritarian agenda will be muted and ignored,” said Ralph Nader.

“The one-man Democratic primaries will be dull, repetitive, and draining of both voter enthusiasm and real bright lines between the two parties that excite voters,” Nader said.

A letter (full text below) is being sent to a list of distinguished elected officials, civic leaders, prominent members of academia and the NGO community who represent the fields of labor, poverty, military and foreign policy, health insurance and care, the environment, financial regulation, consumer protection, and civil, political and human rights/empowerment.

The list of potential candidates also includes progressive democrats who have held national and state office and have fought for progressive reforms.

“We need to put strong democratic pressure on President Obama in the name of poor and working people” said Cornel West, author and Professor at Princeton University. “His administration has tilted too much toward Wall Street, we need policies that empower Main Street.”

The letter pronounces that without primary challengers, President Obama will never have to seriously articulate and defend his beliefs to his own party. Given the dangers our nation faces, that option is unacceptable.

“It’s time for the White House to get into the trench with organized labor and lend a hand. We know what we need, and we don’t need another campaign speech,” said Chris Townsend Political Action Director, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. “The absence of discussion or debate about the failed strategies of this administration only emboldens the corporate onslaught.”

The letter points to numerous decisions that have drawn criticism from Obama’s own Democratic Party including his decision to bail out Wall Street’s most profitable firms while failing to push for effective prosecution of the criminal behavior that triggered the recession, escalating the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan while simultaneously engaging in a unilateral war in Libya, his decision to extend the Bush era tax cuts, and his acquiescence to Republican extortion during the recent debt ceiling negotiations.

“Robust debate on the crucial issues facing our nation, including global environmental devastation, should characterize all races for national public office and the Democratic presidential primaries are no exception,” said Brent Blackwelder, President Emeritus of Friends of the Earth. “The public needs to hear whether a second term Obama will be like the first term Obama, or perhaps more like the 2008 presidential candidate Obama or something else altogether.”

The list of prominent leaders receiving the letter is being kept private as a courtesy.

Here’s the full letter and a partial list of endorsees:

Dear Colleague,

We write to you in light of recent deteriorating events in Washington, D.C. Misguided negotiations by the Obama Administration over increasing the debt ceiling willingly put our nation’s vital social services on the chopping block while Bush-era tax cuts remain untouched. Clearly the situation has reached crisis proportions. In response, an innovative plan has been developed to reintroduce a progressive agenda back into the political discussion during the 2012 election season.

Consider for a moment two very different scenarios for the 2012 Democratic presidential primaries.

The First scenario, President Obama advances without contest to a unanimous nomination. There is no recognizable Democratic challenger, no meaningful debate on key progressive issues or past broken promises, just a seamless, self-contained operation on its way to raising one billion dollars in campaign funds.

This scenario is what most observers expect. Mr. Obama will face neither opposition nor debate. He will have no need to clarify or defend his own polices or address the promises, kept and unkept, of his 2008 campaign. The president will not have to explain to his supporters why he directly escalated the war in Afghanistan and broadened America’s covert war in Pakistan, why he chose to engage in a military intervention in Libya, or why he has maintained the Bush Administration’s national security apparatus that allows for the suspension and abuse of constitutionally protected civil liberties--dismissing Congress all the way.

In an uncontested Democratic primary, President Obama will never have to justify his decision to bail out Wall Street’s most profitable firms while failing to push for effective prosecution of the criminal behavior that triggered the recession, or his failure to push for real financial reform. He will not have to defend his decision to extend the Bush era tax cuts nor justify his acquiescence to Republican extortion during the debt ceiling negotiations. He will not have to answer questions on how his Administration completely failed to protect homeowner’s losing their homes to predatory banks, or even mention the word “poverty,” as he failed to do in his most recent State of the Union Address, even as more and more Americas sink into financial despair.

He will never be challenged to fulfill his pledge to actively pursue a Labor-supported card check, or his promise to increase the federal minimum wage or why he took single payer off the table after he said he believes in it. The American labor movement, facing an unprecedented onslaught by the Right will not have the opportunity to voice its concerns and rally around a supportive candidate.

The president will not be pressed to answer how he spent four years in office without addressing the ongoing destabilization of our climate or advocating a coherent and ecologically sound energy policy including defending his position on nuclear power and so called clean coal. Nor will he discuss regulatory agency deficiencies in enforcing corporate law and order in an era marked by a corporate crime wave having devastating economic consequences on workers and taxpayers and their savings and pensions. There will be no opportunity for the Hispanic and other relevant communities to speak out on immigration reform even as the Republicans continue to use it as a weapon of political demagoguery.

Add your own concerns, disappointments, and frustrated hopes to this list of what will surely be left off the table during an express-lane primary. The valid disagreements within the Democratic Party, let alone the goals of progressives, will be completely overlooked. The media will gleefully cover the media circus that is sure to be the Republican primaries, magnifying every minor gaffe and carefully cataloging every iteration and argument of the radical right. The cameras will cover the Democratic side only for orchestrated events, the whiff of scandal, and to offer commentary on how the campaign is positioning itself for the general election.

The summation of this process will be a tediously scripted National Convention, deprived of robust exchange and well-wrought policy. And here the danger is clear: not only will progressive principles past and present be betrayed but large sections of voters will feel bored with and alienated from the democratic candidate. This would not serve the president’s campaign, our goals, or the nation’s needs.

Thankfully, there is another option. This second scenario would allow for robust and exciting discussion and debate during the primary season while posing little risk to the president other than to encourage him take more progressive stands. It would also accomplish the critical task of energizing the Progressive base to turn out on Election Day.

Imagine: A slate of six candidates announces its decision to run in the Democratic primaries. Each of the candidates is recognizable, articulate, and a person of acknowledged achievement. These contenders would each represent a field in which Obama has never clearly staked a progressive claim or where he has drifted toward the corporatist right. These fields would include: labor, poverty, military and foreign policy, health insurance and care, the environment, financial regulation, civil and political rights/empowerment, and consumer protection.

Without primary challengers, President Obama will never have to seriously articulate and defend his beliefs to his own party. Given the dangers our nation faces, that option is unacceptable. The slate is the best method for challenging the president for a number of reasons:

  • The slate can indicate that its intention is not to defeat the president (a credible assertion given their number of voting columns) but to rigorously debate his policy stands.
  • The slate will collectively give voice to the fundamental principles and agendas that represent the soul of the Democratic Party, which has increasingly been deeply tarnished by corporate influence.
  • The slate will force Mr. Obama to pay attention to many more issues affecting many more Americans. He will be compelled to develop powerful, organic, and fresh language as opposed to stale poll-driven “themes.”
  • The slate will exercise a pull on Obama toward his liberal/progressive base (in the face of the countervailing pressure from “centrists” and corporatists) and leave that base with a feeling of positive empowerment.
  • The slate will excite the Democratic Party faithful and essential small-scale donors, who (despite the assertions of cable punditry) are essentially liberal and progressive.
  • A slate that is serious, experienced, and well-versed in policy will display a sobering contrast with the alarmingly weak, hysterical, and untested field taking shape on the right.
  • The slate will command more media attention for the Democratic primaries and the positive progressive discussions within the party as opposed to what will certainly be an increasingly extremist display on the right.
  • The slate makes it more difficult for party professionals to induce challengers to drop out of the race and more difficult for Mr. Obama to refuse or sidestep debates in early primaries.

The slate, if announced, will receive free legal advice and adequate contributions for all prudent expenses in moving about the country. The paperwork is far simpler than what confronts ballot-access-blocked third party and independent candidates. For the slate will be composed of registered Democrats campaigning inside the Party Primaries.

This opportunity to revive and restore the progressive infrastructure of the Democratic Party must not be missed. A slate of Democratic candidates challenging the president’s substance and record is an historic opportunity. Certainly, President Obama will not be pleased to face a list of primary challengers, but the comfort of the incumbent is far less important than the vitality and strength of his party’s Progressive ideas and ideals. President Obama should emerge from the primary a stronger candidate as a result.

This letter is sent to several dozen accomplished persons known to identify with the Democratic Party voting line for a variety of reasons. We ask that you join us in becoming an official endorsee of the slate proposal. All endorsements are made as individuals and organizational or institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only. Your endorsement will be a vital signal of support and will help in compiling the strongest slate of candidates possible when we send out the letter to the candidate list, yet to be finalized.

Second, can you suggest accomplished people to contact who may be interested in joining the slate as a candidate in one of the following fields: labor, poverty, military and foreign policy,health insurance and care, the environment, financial regulation, civil and political rights/empowerment, and consumer protection. This can be yourself if you feel it would be appropriate.

Endorsements will be accepted on a rolling basis. All submissions of endorsement or additional questions and comments for the can be directed to Colin O’Neil at or 703-599-3474. We appreciate your speedy reply.

Thank you.

James Abourezk
Former U.S. Senator, South Dakota

Gar Alperovitz, Professor University of Maryland, Co-Founder Democracy Collaborative

Norman Birnbaum
Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University Law Center

Dr. Brent Blackwelder
President Emeritus of Friends of the Earth

Ellen H. Brown
Lawyer and Author of Web of Debt

Edgar Stuart Cahn
Professor of Law, University of the District of Columbia
Co-founder Legal Services for the Poor

Pat Choate
1996 Reform Party Vice President Candidate


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Charles Cray
Director of the Center for Corporate Policy

Peter Coyote
Actor, Author and Director

Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director, Organic Consumers Association

Charles Derber, Professor, Boston College

Ronnie Dugger
Founder, Alliance for Democracy

John Fullerton
President, Capital Institute

Rebecca and James Goodman, Northwood Farm

Randy Hayes
Director, Foundation Earth
Rainforest Action Network Founder

Chris Hedges
Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist of the New York Times and Author

Hazel Henderson,
Author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy
President, Ethical Markets Media, LLC.

Jean Houston
Psychologist, Anthropologist and Author of The Possible Human and The
Possible Society

Nicholas Johnson
Former Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission
Former Administrator, Federal Maritime Commission

Alan F. Kay
Author of Spot the Spin and Locating Consensus for Democracy

Harry Kelber
The Labor Educator

Andrew Kimbrell
Executive Director, Center for Food Safety &
International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA)

Jonathan Kozol
Educator, Author of Savage Inequalities

Lewis Lapham
Former Editor, Harper’s Magazine

Leland Lehrman, Partner, Fund Balance

Rabbi Michael Lerner
Editor, Tikkun Magazine
Chair, Network of Spiritual Progressives

Dr. Richard Lippin, MD
Physician Forecaster, Board Certified in Preventive Medicine and
Advocate for both Individual and Institutional Prevention

Robert D. Manning
Founder and CEO, Responsible Debt Relief Institute
Author of Credit Card Nation

Dr. Samuel Metz, MD
Mad As Hell Doctors, founding member
Physicians for a National Health Plan, member of Portland chapter

Carol Miller, Community Activist, New Mexico

E. Ethelbert Miller, Board Chair Institute for Policy Studies

Ralph Nader
Citizen Advocate

Michael Parenti

John Passacantando
Former Executive Director, Greenpeace USA

Erich Pica
President of Friends of the Earth

Vijay Prashad
Author and Professor, Trinity College

Nomi Prins
Author and former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs

Marcus Raskin
Author of The Common Good and former White House Advisor

Andy Shallal
“Democracy’s Restauranteur” and Owner of Bus Boys& Poets

Michelle Shocked

Chris Townsend
Political Action Director, United Electrical, Radio and Machine
Workers of America (UE)

Gore Vidal
Author and Political Activist

Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Chair, The Shalom Center

Harvey Wasserman
Author of Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth

Cornel West
Professor and Author of Race Matters

Quentin D. Young MD
National Coordinator, Physicians for a National Health Program

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