Bracing for a rough midterm-election outcome, Democrats aren't waiting until Election Day to start blaming one another for the party's problems. Anticipating the possibility that Republicans will flip the Senate, the finger-pointing game is already underway between the party's warring factions.
Earlier this month, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas argued liberals had successfully purged so-called squishy moderates from the Democratic Party's ranks—even if those same lawmakers had helped the party retain conservative-leaning Senate and House seats. From the middle, the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way has become more outspoken in criticizing progressive leaders, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for advocating an agenda that will compromise the party's ability to attract moderate voters.
The public spats between outside groups are nothing compared with the private finger-pointing over who could be responsible if Republicans ride a political wave this year. The moderate wing is prepared to blame the party for avoiding centrist initiatives like free-trade deals and entitlement reform, while the Left will argue party leaders didn't do enough to protect benefits.
"This is a coming divide for the Democratic Party," said one progressive strategist, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. "Not only about explaining 2014, but laying the groundwork for 2016."
The split between the party's progressive and centrist wings isn't new, and the looming difficulty of the midterms play only a part in their ongoing conflict. But the threat of losses later this year is exacerbating the existing tensions.
In Third Way cofounder Matt Bennett's telling, it wasn't a lack of populism that caused the party's problems. It was an incessant focus on class-war rhetoric in 2013 that repelled some voters.
"Democrats lost touch with the middle class," he said. "We engaged in arguments that have intellectual but not emotional resonance. Income inequality is a problem, but that doesn't make it something that will land in public," Bennett said.
Bennett's group has led the charge for Democratic lawmakers and the president to back a socially liberal but economically centrist platform—and in doing so, has become enemy No. 1 of many activists.
Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, was blunt in his rebuttal: President Obama's flirtation with a so-called grand bargain—an agreement offering Republicans the option of reducing the growth of future Social Security benefits by calculating payments using chained CPI—compromised the Democratic attack line against Republicans over entitlement cuts.
He pointed to March's special House election in Florida as evidence. The Democratic nominee there, Alex Sink, attacked Republican David Jolly for wanting to privatize and cut the entitlement program. But the GOP shot back that Sink, who ultimately suffered a disappointing defeat, had once voiced support for cutting Social Security benefits herself.
It's part of the larger progressive argument that Obama failed to articulate a positive vision to protect entitlements for the working-class as a supplement to his frequent rebukes of Republicans and Wall Street for their economic views.
"Now the water is muddy. Nobody knows which side is actually fighting to protect Social Security," Lawson said.
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This article appears in the March 31, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.