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February 03, 2014 12:14 PM Some Very Unsurprising Senate Democratic “Splits” With Obama

By Ed Kilgore

As part of the “narrative” that Barack Obama has lost his mojo of late, and reflecting also the ever-popular “Democrats-in-disarray” meme, we’re hearing that Senate Democrats are “rebelling” against the president on this or that key topic. A Politico piece from Everett Burgess entitled “Senate Democrats break from Obama” is illustrative:

From trade to Iran sanctions, the Keystone XL pipeline, Obamacare, the National Security Agency and energy policy, Senate Democrats seem unusually comfortable criticizing the president, with only minimal concerns about repercussions from the White House.
Even Obama’s steadfast ally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, didn’t mince words last week when he rejected a bill to fast-track trade deals that is strongly backed by the White House, working against Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, a Senate colleague who has been tapped to be the president’s ambassador to China.
Even some Republicans are noticing.
“You had two or three Democrats in the Senate who made statements after the president’s State of the Union speech that wouldn’t have been written any different if they had been written by the [National] Republican Senatorial Committee,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), referring to the Senate GOP campaign arm’s aggressive anti-Obama messaging.

Let’s unpack this argument.

Splits from the majority Democratic position by Members of Congress from energy-producing areas is about as new a development as the electric guitar. Of course Mary Landrieu and Joe Manchin are going to complain about utility regulations and fracking restrictions. Indeed, until Republicans abandon their own environmentalist tradition, a Member of Congress’ region or home-state was far and away the most reliable indicator of their position on energy and environmental issues. And it will, of course, be most visible in the Senate where every energy-producing state has two representatives.

Harry Reid’s rejection of fast-track trade negotiating authority is also un-newsy to anyone remembering similar Democratic hostility to fast-track during the Clinton administration. Yes, there is underlying tension within the Democratic coalition (and also within the Republican coalition, though to a lesser extent) over trade policy, but again, it goes back at least to the 1970s.

The Democratic “revolt” on Iran policy is yesterday’s news in a somewhat different respect: it has been largely quelled as Democratic cosponsors of the Menendez-Kirk sanctions legislation mostly line up in favor of letting Harry Reid keep the bill off the Senate floor until the administration’s negotiations with Iran run their course.

Splits over NSA surveillance and the underlying relationship between national security and private interests are more recent and arguably more significant. But I’m guessing they will more or less go away during the next Republican administration.

The point is not to deny there are differences of opinion in the Donkey Party that may help produce setbacks for Obama this year. It’s that Obama enjoys as much Democratic support in Congress as any Democratic president going back to—well, maybe back to FDR, given Clinton’s problems over trade policy and welfare reform, Carter’s over the Middle East and economic policy, LBJ’s over Vietnam, Kennedy’s and Truman’s over civil rights—you get the picture. The idea that he’s a wounded president against whom Democrats are freely and happily “triangulating” is pretty much GOP agitprop, part and parcel of the notion that Obama is fighting against the sentiments of a center-right nation and is at the mercy of leftist interest groups (which doesn’t exactly square with the “liberal revolt” elements of the “Democrats in disarray” story-line). But we’ll hear more of it between now and November, when Democratic victories in marginal races are attributed to successful Democratic heresy and defeats are marked up to the inevitable triumph of energized and united (when they aren’t engaged in “civil war”) Republicans. Count on it.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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