Challenging a Sitting President: Memory Lane in 1980

ACORN International Community Organizing

Judy Duncan, head organizer of ACORN Canada with Dewey Armstrong
Judy Duncan, head organizer of ACORN Canada with Dewey Armstrong

Miami Being in Miami with the ACORN Canada staff as they plan for the next year and how to expand “coast-to-coast” on federal issue, it seemed like a good time to reach out to Dewey Armstrong, the first ACORN political director and one of the prime architects of the famous 20/80 Campaign, to see what memories and advice he might share of that period, so we arranged to meet him at the famous Versailles restaurant in Little Havana.  I hadn’t seen Dewey in a couple of decades myself, though we had talked on the phone and shared emails and Facebook notes, so it was a fantastic experience all around.

The 20/80 Campaign had focused on leveraging the delegate selection process in both party presidential campaigns to try and win concessions around issues and participation for lower income citizens in the political system.  ACORN’s effort to get to the scale where it could have such impact rested on the ability to build organizations in 20 states by 1980.  Listening to Dewey, I was reminded of many parts of the campaign, as well as some pieces I had forgotten, but were refreshed as he leafed through pages of old mimeographed reports from that era that he had faithfully kept under file.  Of course one thing that made a key difference on the Democratic side was the fact that in 1980 there was a liberal/left challenge in the Democratic primaries by Senator Ted Kennedy to sitting President Jimmy Carter.

Because of the campaign we had front row seats in the political sweepstakes, which makes me doubtful when I hear the wild speculation on some of the liberal blogs that there might be a challenge to President Obama in the coming years.  A sitting President win-lose-or-draw is a very difficult rock to roll down a hill, though as 1980 demonstrates fully, you can damage him sufficiently to cripple a candidacy for the other party to triumph which is also what happened as Governor Ronald Reagan pushed over President Jimmy Carter after one term.   At the time the memories of Camelot and JFK were still fresh, and the Kennedy name (or brand as it would be called now) was still strong and overarching particularly within the Democratic Party.  Ted Kennedy was not the lion of the Senate then, as he became later, but he was still a serious piece of work, rather than another five and dime pol trying to run up the ladder.  It would be hard to come up with an easy equivalent now though it would have to be someone of the stature of an Al Gore (yeah, I know!), Hillary Clinton (not happening!), or a Bill Clinton (no way!).  It doesn’t take much thought to realize that this is a bluff with no cards in the hand.  A challenge might even help Obama hold the center and win re-election if the candidates were weak and the Fox-forces were able to paint a challenger as extreme.

As Dewey told the ACORN Canada senior staff about the fight in the 13th Congressional District caucus in Michigan where ACORN and the UAW had a Unity Slate which prevailed in a dog pile, I was also reminded as he talked of the kind of sway someone like former Mayor Coleman Young had 30 years ago in party machinery.  In these days when money has become even more dominate over organization in anointing real contenders as the 2008 primaries proved with the Hilary money minting machine being bested by Obama’s internet tools and the Party of Me rules everything (as Sarah Palin is proving daily), organization is even more challenged to play the kind of role we saw in such a process 30 years ago.  The midterms proved that organization is essential in registration and GOTV, but that’s after the fact in a party nominee challenge compared to many other factors these days.

Obama seems to know he has the left part of his base painted in a tight corner.  He proved that on the health care bill earlier this year.  If even the Republicans understand that past the bluster, they need to cut a deal, perhaps we need to start figuring out how to negotiate best terms ourselves.