Preparing for Rough Midterms, Democratic Groups Already Blaming Each Other

Says one progressive strategist: “This is a coming divide for the Democratic Party.”

Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren checks out the podium the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
March 30, 2014, 8 a.m.

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.