Liberals warn Obama that base may skip midterm elections

Prominent liberal activists are warning Democratic leaders that they face a problem with the party’s base heading into an election year.

The latest issue to roil relations between President Barack Obama and the liberal wing of the party is his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, which liberals fear could become a debacle like Vietnam.

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The left is also concerned the administration and party leaders have drifted too far to the center or are caving in to non-liberal interest groups in key policy battles, including healthcare reform, climate change and energy reform and financial regulatory reform. In some cases, liberals fear the White House is backing away entirely from core issues, such as the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and ending the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prevents gays and lesbians form serving openly in the military.

“I think there’s a growing concern that Washington is losing battles to entrenched lobbying interests and the administration is not effectively in charge and a sense that things aren’t going well,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group

“I think the Democratic base is getting a little nervous out there about where we’re headed,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), a leading liberal within the Senate Democratic Conference who shares concerns over Obama’s commitment of troops to the Afghan war

Senior officials at the White House and in Congress say liberals will rally to their side once healthcare reform and other major initiatives are passed. And some Democratic pollsters say their research shows Democratic voters are solidly behind Obama, even though he has slipped among Republican and independent voters.

A senior Democrat familiar with discussions at the White House said there will be plenty of time to energize liberals next year.

“This is not a time to worry about the base; we’ll have all of the election year to do that,” said the Democratic source. “We’ll have a long list of accomplishments to present for them to rally around.”

Congress passed a $787 billion stimulus at the start of the year, as well as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that makes it easier for women to sue employers for pay discrimination. Democratic leaders hope in early 2010 to pass a landmark healthcare bill that would extend medical coverage to 30 million Americans without insurance.

The administration is also counting on Congress to pass education reform and financial reform next year and to close Guantánamo or make substantial progress toward that goal by Election Day.

Nevertheless, many liberals are angry the administration doled out tens of billions of dollars to banks and institutions that fueled last year’s financial collapse, yet those same organizations have resisted efforts to reorganize or accept new regulations.

Liberals have also watched with dismay as Republicans and centrist Democrats have shaped healthcare reform legislation to reduce the affordability of mandatory insurance, limit abortion coverage to women who accept federal subsidies and levy an excise tax on high-cost health insurance plans that many union members negotiate for — often in lieu of pay increases.

As a result, they have little patience and have greeted Obama’s decision on Afghanistan with strong skepticism.

Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.), among the most outspoken anti-war Democrats in the Senate, said Obama’s plan to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 is not adequate because it leaves open the possibility of only a few returning home and a substantial force remaining for years.

“It’s not exactly a timeline that’s meaningful to me,” said Feingold. “The White House was just trying to check a box on this and failed. I’m pleased the concept of trying to start bringing the troops home is there, but it needs far more fleshing-out to be credible.”

MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy organization, sent an e-mail alert Tuesday to 5 million members around the country asking them to “Call the White House and tell the president that we want him to focus on bringing our troops home, not escalating our involvement in Afghanistan.”

“There is no doubt Washington has to worry about how the base is reacting and feeling,” said Nita Chaudhary, national campaign and organizing director at MoveOn.org. “It’s incredibly important heading into next year, because the base knocks on doors, makes phone calls and gives money.

“Whether they want to be involved depends on how the fight in Washington has been waged,” she said.

White House officials could not excite liberal voters merely by waving a long list of accomplishments, Chaudhary warned, saying the details of healthcare reform and other legislation would determine the response.

“It’s a dangerous assumption that substance doesn’t matter,” she said.

A new poll commissioned by Daily Kos, a prominent liberal blog, found that the Democratic base has lost a lot of enthusiasm since the 2008 election.

The survey by Research 2000 found that only 56 percent of Democratic respondents said they would definitely or probably vote in the 2010 congressional elections, compared to 40 percent who said they would definitely or likely not vote. Republican voters were much more enthusiastic by comparison, posting an 81 percent to 14 percent split.

Those numbers are alarming for Democrats as various polls show anti-incumbent sentiment growing among voters. A new survey by Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg and James Carville shows that independent voters are losing faith in Obama’s handling of the economy.

“This is about the economy, and it is not pretty,” the strategists concluded. “The Democrats’ biggest loss has come on who would do a better job handling the economy.”

Democrats facing difficult reelections next year agree with the assessment of their leaders that the voters will rally behind Democrats if they can add to their list of accomplishments.

“What you do is get things done,” said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) when asked how his party could energize its base.

And some Democrats argue their party is doing just fine with its base and should worry more about independent voters.

John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster, said that Obama has an approval rating in the “high 80s” among voters who identify themselves as Democrats.

“There’s a big difference between some complaining in the vacuum that is Washington, D.C., versus the base of Democrats nationally,” said Anzalone. “The notion that liberals are unhappy is a non-truth.”