By Niall Stanage - 06/11/12 09:00 AM EDT
Divisions in the Democratic coalition have burst into view, endangering both President Obama and his party colleagues in Congress as November’s election nears.
Fissures have opened over everything from tax policy and former President Bill Clinton’s off-message comments to recriminations following the party’s fiasco in the Wisconsin recall, which some say should have been avoided.
The divides are opening just as Republicans appear more unified, which underlines the danger for Democrats and highlights an abrupt reversal in the two major parties’ fortunes.
Just a few months ago, Republicans were absorbed in a bitter primary battle, and mutual attacks among GOP hopefuls filled the airwaves.
But last week’s news that Romney and the Republicans had outperformed Obama and the Democrats in May fundraising suggested the party of the right was coalescing, as did news of weekly strategy calls between Romney’s campaign and GOP leadership.
Wisconsin, where GOP Gov. Scott Walker trounced a recall effort last week, exposed tensions between Washington Democrats, including the president, and the labor movement.
Many in Washington thought the recall was a bad idea from the start, something reflected in Obama’s reluctance to get involved at any level beyond his Twitter feed.
The lack of effort added to disillusionment among union activists already unhappy with the low priority the White House had accorded to issues such as “card check” that they hold dear.
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After the result, liberals formed a circular firing squad. Speaking to The Hill last week, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) and soon-to-retire Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) complained the entire effort to heave Walker out of office had been a miscalculation.
Rendell called the push “a dumb political fight.” Frank asserted “people on the Democratic side made a big mistake ... My side picked a fight they shouldn’t have picked.”
The Democratic fissures reach into policy matters as well as political strategy.
Clinton’s TV comments suggesting he was in favor of temporarily extending the Bush tax rates for everyone were very different from the White House position — that people earning more than $250,000 per year should start paying higher taxes on Jan. 1.
Some high-profile Democrats on Capitol Hill seem to sing from the Clinton songbook, rather than echoing the White House on tax rates.
Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) last week indicated that they were undecided about extending the Bush rates for everyone. Tellingly, both senators are facing reelection challenges this year.
Other Democrats would prefer a strategy that pushes instead for higher rates only on people earning more than $1 million annually. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took that position in a letter to GOP leaders, although her spokesman denied this should be seen as a gentle prod to the White House. Senate Democratic messaging guru Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also favors the $1 million threshold.
Clinton’s break with the White House on taxes was only his latest difference with Obama.
The former president had already vexed aides to Obama by referring to Mitt Romney’s “sterling” business record during a period when the president’s reelection team was attacking Romney as an uncaring venture capitalist.
Clinton’s narrow defense of Romney also played into an ongoing controversy about the Obama reelection team’s aggressive approach. Prior to Clinton’s intervention, Newark mayor Cory Booker had caused the biggest ripple. But others, including Rendell, had also expressed unease.
In the process of leveling those criticisms, however, the three men also reopened old fault lines with more strident liberals who have long been critical of the coziness of centrist Democrats with Wall Street.
Obama also faces a split on the Keystone XL pipeline. Back in April, 69 House Democrats defied a threat of a White House veto to back a transportation bill that would have advanced the controversial pipeline project. Republicans plan to continue pressing the issue on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail, in part to further expose the Democratic rift.
Still, if Obama’s partnership with Democrats in Congress may be tense, neither side is close to filing for divorce just yet. Many Democrats insist the tax cuts issue will ultimately play to their advantage, helping tar Republicans as in thrall to the demands of multimillionaires.
More broadly, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said his members remained enthusiastic backers of the president.
“This caucus is solidly behind President Obama, and as goes the president, will go this caucus. We’re inextricably linked to his success, and that’s why we’re fighting so hard for his agenda to be brought to the floor,” Larson told The Hill on Friday.
Obama loyalists insist the Wisconsin vote was not reflective of the likely outcome of the presidential election in the Badger State. They may be right: Polls continue to show Obama with a healthy lead over Romney there, and exit polls last week indicated a significant number of voters who had backed Walker also declared a preference for Obama in the presidential match-up.
Outside observers also suggest that reports of the demise of the union movement as a political force in the wake of the Wisconsin vote may be exaggerated.
“What I expect to see is a weaker union movement that is less popular, but that doesn’t mean that public employee unions aren’t going to continue to be major players in electoral politics for the foreseeable future,” said Taylor Dark, a political science professor at California State University, Los Angeles, who is an expert on labor unions. “They will continue to have a lot of money and numbers.”
At the level of presidential politics, however, Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) had insisted prior to the vote that the contest would serve as a “dry run” for the Obama campaign in Wisconsin.
Once the results came in, her counterpart at the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, gleefully insisted that the battle had indeed been “a great dry run.” To his mind, the recall results had proven “Republicans have the infrastructure and enthusiasm that will help us defeat President Obama in Wisconsin.”
Maybe unity, too, will be a stronger factor for the GOP than most people predicted just a few months back. Romney’s ability to out-fundraise Obama last month could be a sign of his party’s new togetherness.
“For Romney to do better [than Obama] induces more money people to contribute,” veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins told The Hill.
“To me, it shows how much Republicans want to win: after all the primary stuff, Romney is their guy and they’re going to get behind him.”
— Additional reporting by Mike Lillis and Cameron Joseph