Democrats are coming off a bad year in which they lost control of the Senate, sank further into the minority in the House and saw Republicans expand their majority in statehouses across the country.
Inside the party, the ideological gap widened and rank-and- file Democrats couldn’t decide whether to embrace or distance themselves from the leader of their party in the fall elections.
The Democratic spectrum may not be as wide as the one in the GOP, which encompasses everything from Wall Street to the Tea Party, but the Democrats’ progressive wing is showing new energy. It has been nearly a quarter century since Bill Clinton pushed out the McGovern liberals and moved the party to the center.
To Republicans everyone to the Left of Ronald Reagan is a liberal – and they’re not so sure about him any more – but that’s only because they’ve moved so far to the Right since his day.
To the disappointment of many, Barack Obama has not been not as liberal as the Republicans would have you believe or as the Left had hoped.
His hesitancy to issue his executive order on immigration before the congressional election was believed to have kept many Hispanic voters at home in November, adding to Democrats’ drubbing at the polls. Environmentalists and other liberal groups have also made no secret of their disappointment either. His slow withdrawal from Afghanistan and seeming interest in returning US forces to Iraq enrage many progressives.
Jews vote about 70 percent Democrat and that’s unlikely to change because of the wide gap between the two parties on domestic issues like social justice, civil rights and civil liberties, immigration, gun control, church-state separation, race, gay rights, environment and income equality.
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When it comes to Israel, Republicans tend to be much more hawkish than Democrats, but when it comes to voting there is wall-to-wall bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Republicans’ efforts to make support for Israel a wedge issue has failed to produce many votes although it has been a lucrative fundraiser. There is dissatisfaction in pro-Israel circles with Obama’s handling of relations with the current Israeli government, but that could change dramatically if a center-left government is elected in March – except in the pro-Israel Right, which has already largely crossed into the GOP camp.
The loudest expressions of Democratic disenchantment with Obama came from two outspoken liberal women in the Congress. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren openly campaigned against the omnibus spending deal Obama made with Republicans. They accused him caving in to conservative demands to weaken the Dodd-Frank bank regulation law and campaign finance rules.
Liberals served notice to the White House they “won’t be a rubber stamp for Obama-backed bills if they think the party’s values are being trampled,” according to The Hill newspaper.
In addition to the liberal-center fault line in the Democratic Party there’s an institutional divide that could deteriorate over the next two years. Rank-and-file Democrats have long complained that Obama didn’t pay enough attention to them, didn’t know how to schmooze and stroke them the way politicians expect.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nevada) groused that the White House bypassed him on some critical spending bills to deal with Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Now that Democrats hold historic low numbers of seats in both chambers, they fear the White House will ignore them altogether.
Critics scoff at the notion of working with McConnell, who from the outset has publicly adopted the goal of making the Obama presidency a failure. But if the new majority leader wants Republicans to be able to show voters in 2016 that they can govern, he’ll have to switch from his long-standing obstructionist strategy to an achievement strategy. It won’t be easy because both parties are so deeply polarized and unaccustomed to cooperating.
The first test will come very soon. McConnell has said the first vote he’ll call in the Senate will be the Keystone pipeline, which has enough Democratic support to pass but not to override a possible veto. Obama faces strong pressure from liberals to block the pipeline, but many of the moderates will vote for it.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) has said the second test will be his bill to tighten sanctions on Iran, which the White House opposed last year and blocked with some deft maneuvering by then-majority leader Reid, who can’t help this time. Obama claimed it could undermine nuclear negotiations with Tehran; Kirk argues it will only strengthen the administration’s bargaining position.
Kirk says he has 17 Democratic votes already and thinks he will have a veto-proof majority by the time the bill makes it to the floor, including Sen. Bob Menendez, the outgoing chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Chuck Schumer, number three in the Democratic leadership.
A similar measure had near unanimous support in the House last year. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has been lobbying hard for the bill and most other pro-Israel groups are expected to support it as well.
Obama will be getting a lot more heartburn from progressive Democrats, and soon.
Progressive senators led by Warren and Minnesota’s Al Franken are calling on the president to withdraw his nomination of investment banker Antonio Weiss for a top Treasury post. They say he is too cozy with Wall Street and the big banks.
Another confrontation with the Left is looming on trade. Obama wants fast-track authority to conclude negotiations on the biggest trade pact in US history, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which means Congress must vote it up or down but can make no changes. Most Republicans and business groups are backing the president while liberal groups and most Democrats are opposing him.
Over 150 Democrats and about two dozen Republicans are on record opposing fast-track authority.
In recognition of the rising influence of the liberal wing and Warren’s own national stature, Reid created a leadership post for her as a strategic advisor. Obama expects to be using his veto pen quite a bit over the next two years, and he will need Democrats to help sustain those decisions.
Some, however, may be reluctant to go to the barricades for a lame-duck president who many feel has taken them for granted and could drag them down.
Pelosi’s and Warren’s opposition to the year-end spending compromise between the White House and Republicans told the president not to try to bypass them to cut deals with the opposition because he will need them in the showdowns.
The great challenge facing the Right and Left in both parties will be convincing the independents and swing voters who decide presidential elections that they are the ones looking after the interests of the middle class.
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