The Emerging Democratic Divide Over Obamacare

President Obama is facing the reality that longtime allies are now looking out for their own survival, not taking one for the team.

Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) listens during a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works meeting discussing global warming on January 30, 2007.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Nov. 13, 2013, 5:48 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans are in the midst of a messy civil war between their es­tab­lish­ment wing and the tea-party in­sur­gents. But with Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ings col­lapsing amid prob­lems with his sig­na­ture health care law, Demo­crats are start­ing to face their own di­vi­sions.

Pres­id­ent Obama v. the Clin­tons. It’s hard to be­lieve Bill Clin­ton’s re­com­mend­a­tion that Obama hon­or his health care prom­ise was an ac­ci­dent. Not only did it provide cov­er for con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats to break with the White House, it also ad­ded to the pres­sure on an ad­min­is­tra­tion des­per­ately try­ing to come up with any last-ditch ad­min­is­trat­ive fix to stop the bleed­ing — without harm­ing the law it­self. Clin­ton knows how dam­aging the Obama­care prob­lems could be to Sen­ate Demo­crats and, if not re­solved soon, that they could have a last­ing im­pact on his wife’s (likely) pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Hil­lary Clin­ton can’t tweak her old boss, but her hus­band cer­tainly can (and has be­fore).

Con­gres­sion­al di­vide between red-state Demo­crats and Obama loy­al­ists. We’re already see­ing red-state Demo­crats and sen­at­ors on the bal­lot in 2014 be­gin to break away from the White House. As polit­ic­ally pal­at­able le­gis­la­tion to al­ter Obama­care comes through with bi­par­tis­an sup­port, there will be a lot of pres­sure on oth­ers to join in (pa­ging re­li­ably lib­er­al Sens. Di­anne Fein­stein and Ben Cardin). The White House may res­ist, but a veto-proof ma­jor­ity may soon be build­ing to make sig­ni­fic­ant changes to the law, giv­en the cur­rent polit­ic­al sen­ti­ment. Des­pite dif­fi­cult re­la­tions with Con­gress, Obama usu­ally could count on party loy­alty to get him through rocky patches. Not any­more.

The party’s Hil­lary Clin­ton-Eliza­beth War­ren split. Clin­ton looks closer to a lock than any­one for the 2016 Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion this far out — as­sum­ing she runs. But the party’s pro­gress­ive wing is already star­ted to push Eliza­beth War­ren as a cred­ible can­did­ate. That’s un­likely. War­ren, des­pite the buzz, isn’t a smooth cam­paign­er. She would ap­peal mainly to a nar­row, af­flu­ent slice of the Demo­crat­ic elect­or­ate, and many of her Mas­sachu­setts Sen­ate donors would go with Clin­ton. But as 2016 draws closer, Demo­crats may start to worry about Obama’s bag­gage spread­ing to the party’s fu­ture nom­in­ee. Ex­pect to hear grow­ing pro­gress­ive angst to find any lib­er­al out­sider to chal­lenge the for­mid­able front-run­ner.

Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al his­tory shows that the pres­id­ent’s party tends to be united, while the op­pos­i­tion of­ten looks lead­er­less, rud­der­less, and di­vided. But when the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ing sinks in­to dan­ger­ous ter­rit­ory, that for­mula be­comes in­op­er­at­ive. And Obama is fa­cing the real­ity that many long­time al­lies are now look­ing out more for their polit­ic­al sur­viv­al than his leg­acy or the fate of his name­sake law.

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