Jacob Heilbrunn

The Looming Civil War in the Democratic Party

A devastating defeat in the midterm elections may portend a civil war among Democrats. President Obama, whose victory in 2008 seemed to portend a lasting liberal decade, is already being targeted by unhappy Democrats. Obama's refusal to endorse Frank Caprio, who is running for Governor in Rhode Island, caused an uproar. Caprio himself said Obama can "shove it." Throw in the controversy over health care and the House vote on the climate change bill, and Democrats are stewing. Depending on the outcome of the election, the unhappiness could spill into active hostilities.

John Fund points out that an AP poll indicates that 47 percent of Democrats think Obama should confront a primary challenge in 2012 for the presidential nomination. The last primary challenge to a sitting president came in 1979 when Teddy Kennedy ran against Jimmy Carter. Fund notes that no president in the past half-century has managed to win reelection after facing a primary fight. Two possible challengers for 2012 might be Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean. Of course neither would really have a chance at capturing the nomination.

Or would they? Kucinich is too much of a livewire. But Dean might be able to snag it. Obama's next two years would have to be a total disaster. Unemployment hovering around 12 percent, coupled with a move to the middle to try and placate Republicans, might be enough to send the Democratic base into overdrive. Still, the more likely scenario is that a Dean or Kucinich run would wound but not finish off Obama. The idea would be to push him to the left, an almost surefire recipe for defeat in the general election.

At a minimum, as Peter Wallstein and Jonathan Weisman note, pressure is mounting among Democrats for Obama to revamp his inner circle:

"They just had so much faith in the president's ability to navigate all this and that no matter what the right threw at him, the president would have this force field of trust that would protect him," a House strategist said. "On the Hill, there's this sense that there are three [political] parties, the president, Democrats in Congress and Republicans in Congress."

That force field, said a number of strategists and officials, is comprised of Mr. Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, press secretary Robert Gibbs and 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe. Some complained the White House, in its focus on building a 2012 reelection strategy, acted at times more in its own interest than that of Democratic candidates.

These kinds of recriminations are par for the course, especially among Democrats. Debates will rage along the lines of: Obama was too liberal. He wasn't liberal enough. He should have spent more on the stimulus. He didn't spend enough on the stimulus. And so forth.

The one thing that Obama has not displayed, however, is leadership. If he's on his political toes, his first move should be to invite the Republican leadership over to the White House for a pow-wow. Obama's smartest move will be to pledge cooperation in solving the nation's problems. If he can at least pretend to try and work with the GOP, and the economy shows a slight uptick, then he'll be able to insulate himself from further criticism. But if the economy continues to slump, he can look to be bludgeoned from the right--and the left.


(Illustration by David Ball)