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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Democratic Rifts Surface in Wake of Midterm Election Defeat - Leaders Dispute Wisdom of Health-Care Overhaul, Delaying Move on Immigration

From The Wall Street Journal:

Long-muted tensions within the Democratic Party over policy and strategy are beginning to surface publicly, a sign of leaders looking beyond President Barack Obama ’s tenure in the aftermath of the party’s midterm election defeat.

A prominent example came this week, when Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), a member of the Senate leadership, gave a rare public rebuke to Mr. Obama over the centerpiece of his presidency: the health-care overhaul of 2010. Mr. Schumer said the party should have focused on helping a broader swath of the middle class than the uninsured, whom he called “a small percentage of the electorate.’’

On the same day, the White House surprised Democratic leaders in the Senate by threatening to veto a tax package negotiated by both parties. The White House said the deal would help “well-connected corporations while neglecting working families.’’

The twin developments were among fissures within the party that, at their broadest level, show Democrats at odds over what economic message to present to voters ahead of the 2016 presidential race. Worried that they lacked a compelling position in the midterms, Democrats are split over whether to advance a centrist message or a more populist economic argument that casts everyday families as victims of overly powerful corporations and benighted government policies.

“You’re going to get a fight within the Democratic Party,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D., N.Y.), as the progressive wing of the party splits from centrists, who fear that liberal economic policy proposals are unpalatable to most voters. “There is a substantial disagreement coming up.”

Democratic infighting has largely been out of public view for the last half-dozen years. Since Mr. Obama took office, Republicans have been the ones dealing with rifts. A conservative Tea Party wing clashed with mainstream Republicans in primary contests this year, jockeying for sway over the party’s ideological compass. That debate remains unsettled and is likely to play out in the 2016 Republican primaries.

Now, it is the Democrats who are looking increasingly fractious. Unusual as it was to see Mr. Schumer part ways with Mr. Obama on policy, it was even more extraordinary for him to target the Affordable Care Act, a law so tied to the Obama legacy.

Democrats, Mr. Schumer said, “blew the opportunity the American people gave them” by focusing “on the wrong problem—health care.” Key provisions of the health law, he said, affected relatively few voters. Instead, the party should have pressed for programs that would have raised wages and helped more of the middle class, he said.

Mr. Schumer’s comments drew angry responses from Obama loyalists. They said Mr. Obama had promised to break from a politics-as-usual attitude in Washington, while echoing the president’s argument that making health care more widely available boosted many Americans’ economic security.

David Axelrod, a top strategist in both of Mr. Obama’s presidential races, said: “If your calculus is solely how to win elections, and that is your abiding principle, it leads you to Sen. Schumer’s position. But that’s precisely why big, difficult problems often don’t get addressed in Washington, and why people have become so cynical about that town and its politics.”

Through a spokesman, Mr. Schumer declined to comment.

The intraparty fight has touched on other elements of policy and strategy since it erupted soon after this month’s elections, which stripped Democrats of their Senate majority. David Krone, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), publicly blamed Mr. Obama for Democratic losses. He said the president wouldn’t transfer millions of dollars in party funds to help save imperiled Democrats, and he told the Washington Post that “the president’s approval rating is barely 40%.… What else more is there to say?”

As is the case with Mr. Schumer, Mr. Krone’s comments were an unusual breach of protocol. It is rare for Democrats at senior levels to publicly criticize other Democrats—and rarer still for a legislative aide to chide a president from his own party. Mr. Reid’s office declined to make Mr. Krone available for an interview.

Addressing Mr. Krone’s comments, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier this month that Messrs. Obama and Reid had “struck up a genuine friendship when the two men served together in the United States Senate, and that relationship has only been strengthened during the president’s time in the White House.”

Mr. Krone’s boss is having his own troubles with the White House. Sen. Reid is backing the tax-cut bill that drew a veto threat from Mr. Obama, because it doesn’t include a proposal backed by liberals to make enhanced tax credits for the working poor permanent, alongside tax breaks for businesses.
Adding to the deepening divide between Messrs. Reid and Obama is that the deal included a measure that would benefit Mr. Reid’s home state as the Nevada Democrat readies himself for a likely 2016 re-election bid. A presidential veto wouldn’t help his cause.

Tensions have also emerged between House and Senate Democrats. One flashpoint was immigration. Some House Democrats believe it was a mistake for Mr. Obama to wait until after the midterm elections to take executive action limiting deportations, a delay that the president agreed to at the behest of Senate Democratic leaders trying to protect vulnerable incumbents, such as Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas. The delay didn’t stop Mr. Pryor and other Senate Democrats from losing.

One senior House Democratic aide said many House Democrats believe the delay hurt Hispanic turnout, contributing to the defeat of Reps. Pete Gallegos of Texas and Joe Garcia in Florida.

“Hindsight is 20-20,” this aide said, “but there was all this effort to avoid anything Mark Pryor might be asked about. All that effort was for nothing. Clearly, that strategy failed.”

Part of the reason for Democratic feuding is Mr. Obama’s declining popularity as he enters the final quarter of his presidency. Various Democrats hope to emerge as the new center of gravity in the party.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears the logical choice, given that she is likely to run for president in 2016, and polls show her comfortably leading the field of potential Democratic rivals in the primaries. Yet for many liberals, it isn’t Mrs. Clinton who stokes the most passion, but the first-term senator from Massachusetts, populist firebrand Elizabeth Warren.

“She is someone who voters see as authentic and inspiring, as opposed to someone who is trying to play it safe and take no risks,” said Erica Sagrans, a former Obama campaign aide who is trying to entice Ms. Warren to run for president.

Mr. Schumer may also have designs on a more influential role in the party. He has long been seen as someone with an eye on the leadership spot now held by Mr. Reid. Some Democrats saw his speech as an effort to lay a course for the party that might position him for a spot higher in the party hierarchy.

In a sign of the emerging struggle over which direction to take the party, Senate Democrats met for four hours behind closed doors earlier this month to hash out what went wrong in the midterm elections and how they would operate next year, when they will be in the minority. Mr. Reid was reappointed Democratic leader, but a handful of moderate Democrats voted against him.

In a concession to the party’s liberal wing, members also created a new leadership post—for Ms. Warren.

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