By Juan Williams - 06/25/12 09:00 AM EDT
Last week the three most powerful Democrats in the state of West Virginia — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Senator Joe Manchin and Rep. Nick Rahall – made a public display of turning their backs on President Obama by announcing plans to skip the Democratic National Convention.
The president lost West Virginia in 2008 and his polling there remains weak. So local Democrats have decided they have no problem embarrassing the man whose name will be on the top of their ticket in November.
The same political distancing act is on display in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district. Conservative Democrat Mark Critz also says he has better things to do than go to the convention. Rep. Critz said he will be working in his district instead of “focusing on the agendas of the political parties.”
But when the history of Obama’s first term is written, conservative Democrats will also be remembered for regularly throwing wrenches into any plans coming from this president.
The conservative Democrats — mostly elected from swing states in the anti-President George W. Bush wave elections of 2006 and 2008 — gave the president headaches even when Democrats controlled the House and Senate.
The best example was the fight over healthcare reform.
Republicans did not give the president a single vote despite a plan that followed previous GOP proposals — most notably Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts law — and excludes a public option for insurance. That left the president in need of every Democrat’s vote. Note that liberal Democrats who wanted a public option did not abandon the president.
But those conservative Democrats squeezed the Obama Team for concessions and amendments that allowed Republican critics to disparage the negotiations as “Chicago-style” bribery used to win support for a bad proposal.
Words and phrases such as “kickbacks” and “sausage making” became associated with healthcare reform. And they became Republican talking points that drove down public support for the healthcare deal even as most Americans praised the individual changes the bill achieved.
The president again had trouble with conservative Democrats in April when he said he would veto any transportation bill that included the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada. Conservative Democrats walked out on the president when 69 of them joined the GOP to vote legislation that included the oil sands pipeline.
And in the last week, seven conservative Senate Democrats undercut the president’s negotiations with Republicans over a budget deal. They have declined to adopt the president’s negotiating position against another extension of the Bush-era income tax rates.
The move weakens Obama in negotiations with the GOP.
A weak presidential candidate at the top of the ticket does not usually help anyone on the ticket. But in this election cycle conservative Democrats obviously see their political fortunes as separate from Obama’s.
One of those conservative Democrats, Sen. Claire McCaskill, is locked in a tough reelection fight in Missouri, a state Obama lost in 2008. In addition to backing away from the president on the budget deal, she is also backing away on immigration policy changes allowing young illegal immigrants in high school or the military to avoid deportation.
“My preference would be for Congress to resolve this issue,” McCaskill said. “I’ll be looking at the details of this announcement closely to ensure it isn’t a magnet for illegal immigration.”
McCaskill is distancing herself from the president in the hope of persuading swing voters that she is more of an independent than a Democrat.
A Rasmussen poll taken earlier this month found McCaskill losing to her likely GOP opponent by 12 points. McCaskill needs independent voters and she does not see the Obama brand helping her cause.
From the Obama campaign’s perspective, the conservative Democrats’ strategy is damaging.
Obama also wants to win over independents. He could use conservative Democrats as allies.
The result is the White House never punishes the turncoats.
The Obama campaign is too busy energizing its liberal base right now with support for gay marriage, the new immigration policy and preventing student loans from skyrocketing. Those policies may be enough punishment for Democrats seeking socially-conservative independent voters.
The real question for conservative Democrats now is whether any voters will think they are not actually Democrats because of stunts such as avoiding the national convention.
In Pennsylvania’s 12th District, the campaign manager for Rep. Critz’s Republican opponent doubts skipping the Charlotte convention will do it.
Rep. Critz “can run from President Obama all he wants …” said Jon Raso. “This is just the latest ploy … to distance himself from the president in desperation of saving his political career.”
Maybe Obama will throw a wrench in Critz’s plan by endorsing him.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.