Thursday, April 08, 2010

Obama the "Maverick" and the "Power Struggle: Inside The Battle For The Soul Of The Democratic Party"

"Obama and His Base: Who's The Maverick Now?" (Jill Lawrence-Politics Daily):
Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican nominee John McCain called himself a political maverick with "the record and the scars" to prove it, in contrast to a rival he portrayed as a spineless party man who never challenged Democratic leaders or interest groups. At this point, as President Obama launches a new era of offshore oil and gas drilling, the two men have largely reversed roles.
McCain, facing competition from the right in the Arizona GOP Senate primary, has abandoned his past as a champion of comprehensive immigration reform and climate change legislation. He has turned against the TARP bank bailout (which he supported when he was a presidential candidate). And he went along with his party in saying no to the Democrats' economic stimulus and health reform bills.

Obama, on the other hand, seems to be annoying an increasingly broad swath of his party base:

- Liberals were adamantly against his "surge" of troops and money in Afghanistan. They don't like that Guantánamo Bay prison is still open or that many of George W. Bush's anti-terror tactics are still in use. They were deeply unhappy that Obama did not seem to care much about their beloved "public option" -- a government-run insurance plan that didn't make it into the final health reform law.

- Labor was upset by Obama's steadfast support for an excise tax on expensive health insurance policies, the very types of policies many unions had negotiated in lieu of pay raises. Nor has the president pushed for a vote on the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to form unions and which is labor's top priority. Obama didn't do it when he had a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate, and he isn't doing it now.

- Teachers have long been wary of Obama's support for charter schools and pay-for-performance policies. The two big teacher unions reacted negatively to Obama's proposed rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the plan "scapegoats" teachers. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said the NEA could not support it in its current form.

-- Abortion rights advocates were livid during the health reform debate when Obama and leading Democrats sided with abortion opponents who wanted to ban abortion coverage in policies sold through new competitive marketplaces. Some people would be paying for policies at least partly with government subsidies. Obama signed an executive order reaffirming the federal policy that no taxpayer money would pay for abortions, dismaying feminist activists but securing the votes he needed from anti-abortion Democrats.

-- Gay rights advocates felt Obama had abandoned them when for a year he did nothing about ending the military's don't ask, don't tell policy. That shifted in February when Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, told Congress it was time to change the policy. They are studying how to make the transition and last month they eased enforcement.

- Environmentalists were muted in their reactions when Obama revived the moribund U.S. nuclear power industry with $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two new reactors in Georgia. There is more overt dismay over his new offshore drilling plan, although Obama has signaled since his campaign that he would take this path. The League of Conservation Voters said Obama's "highly disappointing" plan will "continue the failed policies of the past." Added the (also disappointed) Sierra Club, "There's no reason to drill our coasts."

Obama, however, offered at least one reason. He said the oil and gas are needed as a stopgap for economic and security reasons "as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy." He also depicted his drilling plan as a step toward a bipartisan energy and climate bill. "I think that we can break out of the broken politics of the past," he said. "I know that we can come together to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation that's going to ... create millions of new jobs, protect our planet, and help us become more energy independent."

The House has passed a comprehensive bill that includes a controversial cap-and-trade system to limit carbon pollution. But it is unclear whether the Senate can surmount a heavy workload, gridlock, and partisanship -- and whether the drilling is as much of a lure as Obama intends it to be. Some Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce called Obama's five-year plan too restrictive (the West Coast, the East Coast above New Jersey, and parts of Alaska and Florida are off limits). One liberal critic, Matt Yglesias, says the price is too high considering Obama hasn't nailed down GOP votes for a comprehensive energy bill.

While Obama's independent streak is not entirely new, you have to wonder at this point if he's stifling enthusiasm among the diehard Democrats who absolutely must vote this fall if their party is to have any chance of avoiding a debilitating wipeout. But here's the thing. Nearly two-thirds of Americans support more drilling and more nuclear power. And Obama is doing fine with Democrats -- 85 percent approved of his job performance in a recent Bloomberg poll.

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said Democrats need opportunities to reach across party lines and show they can govern. That's how you win independents who hate "the Washington culture, the polarized culture," he said this week at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. "Karl Rove had a base strategy," Greenberg added. "And he was very, very consistent, and he destroyed the Republican Party."

It's not that Obama ignores the Democratic base. The appointments he made after Congress went on recess last month, for instance, included labor lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board and lesbian law professor Chai Feldblum to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Beyond that, since he took office, Obama has plugged away at Democratic priorities big and small. According to Politifact's running tab of about 500 Obama campaign promises, he has already kept scores of them. He is easing U.S. troops out of Iraq, perhaps his central campaign pledge. Now he has signed the type of sweeping health overhaul that Democrats have sought for decades.

In the next couple of weeks, three senators -- Democrat John Kerry, Republican Lindsey Graham and independent Joe Lieberman -- will unveil a rewrite of their comprehensive energy bill and it will include nuclear energy and new drilling. If that leads to passage, is the tradeoff worth it to environmentalists?

Dan Weiss, director of climate strategy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said it certainly should be for anyone who believes that "global warming is our greatest environmental threat" and "our greatest economic threat" is that China, Germany and other countries are jumping ahead of us in energy technology. Will it inspire people to vote in November? "There's no deal yet, so we'll have to see," Weiss said.
That is a risk Obama feels comfortable taking, on energy and other issues. His bet is that Democrats will be energized in November by success -- even if some of their hopes and expectations are dashed along the way by a president with a maverick streak.
"Power Struggle: Inside The Battle For The Soul Of The Democratic Party" (Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney):
Raúl Grijalva is sitting quietly with a few of his staffers at one end of the bar, a bottle of Bud and a shot of whiskey in front of him, while his fellow Democratic members of the House of Representatives roar in celebration at the other end. It's 1 a.m. Less than two hours earlier, after a 14-month battle, Congress approved comprehensive health care reform.
Joe Crowley, ascendant leader of the New Democrat Coalition, stands behind the bar, passing out beers to his colleagues -- Bart Stupak, Melissa Bean, Steve Driehaus, John Larson. Crowley owns the place, his six-foot-four frame and Tyrannosaurus head towering over the crush of members, staffers, reporters and regulars.

Grijalva is a regular. So much so that for weeks, a cartoon caricature of him hung on a wall by the front door: a shirtless Grijalva, at the beach, admiring a sandcastle he has built with Lynn Woolsey and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. None of them see the menacing gang of senators marching their way. In the unsubtle tradition of political cartoons, the sandcastle spells out PUBLIC OPTION. The cartoon, fittingly, has been taken down before tonight. "We're commiserating and celebrating," says Grijalva, whose mood is leaning heavily toward the former.

The Senate hooligans depicted in the cartoon had co-conspirators. Democrats in both chambers let the sand castle get smashed, each blaming the other. The Democrats celebrating their victory in the bar tonight are of a decidedly conservative variety, the result of a conscious strategy to move the party to the right in order to take back the House and pad the majority. They may be the ones partying, but it's Grijalva and his progressive allies who are picking up the tab.

Since 1995, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have collectively given $6.3 million directly to members of the Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions, according to an analysis by the Huffington Post of data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. That's not an overwhelming sum when the average winning campaign nowadays costs more than $1 million, but it represents one-sixth of all giving from one faction within the party to another. It doesn't include the millions that progressives have given to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- rank-and-file members are supposed to cough up $150,000 every two years (though many miss that mark), committee chairmen $250,000 and up. The DCCC turns around and funnels that money to conservative Democrats in close races. Add to that the millions spent by organized labor and outside groups such as, and it's clear that progressive donors have become major financial benefactors of the conservative Democrats who battled to undermine their agenda. "That tension exists a lot," George Miller says about the party's demand that progressives fund their intramural rivals. "That tension exists a lot. And it's real."

Democrats play it too safe, says Grijalva. "When I give my dues to the DCCC, or when you contribute to it, you have no distinction as to where your money is going to go. And it goes to front-liners and usually Blue Dogs and [they] usually vote against our issues. And that's a real frustration. And usually, if there's a progressive running, it's the last consideration in terms of support," he says.

The Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions emerged in the 1990s in the wake of the successful Republican campaign to take control of Congress, and have continuously expanded their membership ever since. The prototypical Blue Dog comes from a socially conservative, rural district; New Democrats are more likely to represent pro-choice bankers from the suburbs. Both groups offer automatic protection against accusations that their members are too liberal.

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The money flows almost entirely in one direction: The conservative coalitions have given progressives less than $600,000. While Blue Dogs and New Democrats have each given their fellow travelers $2.4 million in the past 15 years, members of the much larger progressive caucus have helped each other to the tune of just $1.3 million.

Progressives have received very little return on their investment when it comes to important votes. The 34 Democrats who voted against the health care reform bill in March have collectively received $2.1 million from progressive members. More than half of that sum came in the past five years.

Grijalva is piqued that the caucus his fellow progressives helped create has now launched a pep rally in his low-key bar, which he discovered when he arrived in 2003 after searching for a stool safely outside the orbit of Washington's power center. His colleagues don't seem to notice the host's distress. Leaving the bar to shouts of "Crow-ley! Crow-ley!", the Queens congressman out of central casting barely acknowledges Grijalva. Other members give him cursory nods. He stays until after the lights come on -- last call. As the remaining reporters file out, Grijalva says he will begin the fight again tomorrow.

He'll have company. Organized labor, and progressive members of Congress are increasingly breaking from the orbit of the White House and the Democratic establishment, beginning to take on the administration, build an independent infrastructure and back progressive primary challengers. Unions are working to groom progressive candidates in small, local races and, inside Congress, the progressive caucus -- after years of being treated like the stepchild of the House -- has the potential leadership and organizing vision in place to be ready the next time the nation clamors for a step forward and, in the meantime, to finish what was started on March 21, 2010.

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