The parties’ civil wars

What was clear from the first post-Bush, post-Obama GOP victories in gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey this week is that Democrats are not only losing independents, they are losing their own voters. Liberal disappointment and Democratic apathy, combined with the departure of independents, lead to Democratic losses this year and will lead to many more in the 2010 midterm elections if Democrats ignore the lessons of 2009.

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Why are Democrats not fired up and ready to get off the couch? Like many independents and Republicans, some of them are worried about the direction of the country — about deficits and debt and the growth and reach of government since President Barack Obama took office. But many liberals are frustrated and angry that the administration hasn’t moved on gay-rights issues, immigration reform and union priorities, and they have grown increasingly opposed to the war in Afghanistan.

As the healthcare reform debate not only ignited fierce reaction from opponents this year, it has also pitted the Democratic Party’s left against its leaders in Washington. Not only has the Obama administration cut deals with industry, but it has wavered continuously on a government-run healthcare program.

The process, originally intended to conclude before this week’s elections, is dragging on with intra-party disputes on matters like abortion, and could bleed into 2010.

Some Democrats argue that to win, they must govern like Democrats instead of Independents.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told The Hill this week that the party must deliver on promises it has made to Democrats. “You can’t distance yourself from your base and expect to succeed. Our base wants healthcare reform. We fail to pass healthcare reform at our peril,” he said.

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But healthcare that pleases the left, that includes a government healthcare program known as the public option, is likely to become even more difficult to pass as a result of Democrats losing statewide in Virginia and New Jersey. Conservative Democrats are increasingly worried about the party’s agenda, and as they watch independent voters fleeing the Obama coalition, they would prefer to focus on the economy and job creation rather than initiatives like cap-and-trade legislation that Republicans have already painted as a new tax and a job-killer.

With the economy trumping all other issues and burgeoning concern over deficits and debt, Democrats must soon raise the debt limit, figure out how to further stimulate the economy without adding to the deficit and determine whether they will repeal all or some of the Bush tax cuts.

To be sure, Democrats will spend much of 2010 battling under the big tent that brought them to power. Republicans should watch them closely. While a pickup in NY-23 was a silver lining for Democrats, and stopped what many feared would be a Republican rout Tuesday night, Democrats know they can’t count on winning only when Republicans eat their own.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.

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