Politics & Policy

The Real Civil War

Dissension in the Ranks? Senators Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid (Getty Images)
While Republicans debate tactics, Democrats are trying to figure out who they are.

Old habits die hard. The media are so enamored of the continuing (and largely contrived) story about the great Republican civil war that they fail to appreciate that the real internecine fight is being waged on the other side of the aisle.

I grant that there’s a lot of shouting today among Republicans. But it’s a ritual skirmish over whether a government shutdown would force the president to withdraw a signature measure — last time, Obamacare; this time, executive amnesty.

And it will likely be resolved with the obvious expedient of funding the government through next year, except for a more short-term extension for homeland security. That way, defunding the executive order could be targeted at just the issue at hand, namely immigration, and would occur when the GOP holds the high ground: control of both houses of Congress.

It’s a tempest in a teapot, and tactical at that. Meanwhile, on the other side, cannons are firing in every direction as the Democratic party, dazed and disoriented, begins digging itself out of the shambles of six years of Barack Obama.

The fireworks began even before Election Day with preemptive backstabbing of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, by fellow Democrats. This was followed after the electoral debacle by bitter sniping between Obama and Harry Reid when Reid’s chief of staff immediately — and on the record — blamed the results on Obama. In turn, Obama got his revenge last week by sabotaging a $450 billion “tax extender” deal that Reid had painstakingly negotiated.

But the Democrats’ civil war goes far beyond the petty and the personal. It’s about fundamental strategy and ideology. The opening salvo was Senator Chuck Schumer’s National Press Club speech, delivered three weeks after Election Day, that openly denounced Obamaism, its policies and priorities. In essence: Elected with a mandate to restore the economy and address the anxieties of a stagnating and squeezed middle class, Obama instead attacked, restructured, reorganized, and destabilized a health-care system that was serving the middle class relatively well.

Eighty-five percent of Americans already had health insurance, argued Schumer. Yet millions have suffered dislocations for the sake of a minority constituency — the uninsured — barely 13 percent of whom vote.

This has alienated the Democrats’ traditional middle-class constituency. Indeed, in a 2013 poll cited by the New York Times’s Thomas Edsall, by a margin of 25 percent, people said Obamacare makes things better for the poor. But when the question was, Does it make things better “for people like you”? Obamacare came out 16 points underwater. Moreover, for whites, whose support for Democrats hemorrhaged in 2014, 63 percent thought Obamacare made things worse for the middle class.

That’s how you lose elections, Schumer argues. And forfeit large chunks of the traditional Democratic coalition. Health care was not a crisis in 2009 (nor in 1993, when Hillarycare was proposed, leading to another Democratic electoral disaster the following year); it was an ideological imperative for Barack Obama and the liberal elites in charge of Congress — their legacy contribution to the welfare state.

As are Obama’s current cherished causes: climate change and amnesty for illegal immigrants. These are hardly the top priorities of a working/middle class whose median income declined as much during the Obama recovery as during the Great Recession.

The underlying Schumer contention is that catering to coastal elites and select minorities is how you end up losing 64 percent of the white working class — which, though shrinking, is almost 50 percent larger in size than the black and Hispanic electorates combined.

While Schumer lobbed artillery shells at Obama’s faculty-room liberalism, the Left — through Elizabeth Warren’s progressive populism — kept up its fire on the party’s center. Warren is looking beyond Obama to Hillary Clinton, cozy as Clinton is (Schumer, too) with Wall Street, the bête noire of the party base. Which is why Clinton actually said: “Don’t let anybody tell you that, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs” — a stupendously clumsy attempt to parry Warren by parroting her.

From opposite sides of the (Democratic) spectrum, Schumer and Warren are trying to remake and reorient the Democratic party post-Obama. So while Republicans are debating the tactics of stopping presidential lawlessness — an inherently difficult congressional undertaking, particularly if you still control only a single house — Democrats are trying to figure out what they believe and whom they represent.

Which do you think is the more serious problem?

 Charles Krauthammer is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2014 The Washington Post Writers Group

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