For most of 2012, President
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
, who cast nearly half of their votes for Keith Judd, an inmate currently serving time in a Texarkana, Texas, prison. Mr. Judd received 41 percent of the vote. In 1968, Eugene McCarthy received 42 percent of the vote and forced incumbent Lyndon
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, but everyone was busy watching the actual contest. The
Meanwhile, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 with enough frequency 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 re-engaged with the presidential race.
And to raise cash, of course. There's a "money primary" for incumbents, too, as evidenced by Mr. 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," Mr. Obama has had more re-election fundraising events than all the previous incumbent presidents since
And that's where the irony of Mr. Obama's entirely disingenuous about-face on gay marriage really kicks in. Oh, I don't think Mr. Obama is disingenuous about his support for gay marriage. (If anything, he supports it far more than he admitted to
Mr. Obama had to admit he was in favor of gay marriage because he was, in effect, forced to by an unexpected money-primary opponent:
Mr. Obama's fundraiser at
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, Mr. 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.