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Francis Wilkinson: Is Elizabeth Warren the face of a Democratic crackup?

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, at 12 a.m.

I’ve heard from a few people lately that the Democratic Party is headed for the same kind of intraparty demolition that continues to plague Republicans. According to this view, Democrats haven’t reckoned with the looming entitlement disaster that will pit the party’s moderates, pruning shears in hand, against its left, which will latch onto current Social Security and Medicare funding like a militant tree hugger around an ancient sequoia.

In addition, the left is furious at President Obama for snooping on, well, apparently everyone and everything on the planet, and they will demand a politically perilous retrenchment of the national-security state from their next presidential nominee.

Oh, and one more thing: Inequality is accelerating under Obama’s watch. So the soul of the next nominee will be pulled from one side by the Robert Rubin wing and from the other by Occupy Wall Streeters. Either one side will lose the tug of war, walking away embittered, or the candidate will be dismembered. Neither outcome is optimal.

This is the “Democratic crackup” context in which some are doubtless reading Noam Scheiber’s New Republic cover story on a nascent conflict between Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton. Scheiber doesn’t say the party is falling apart. He simply writes, compellingly, that Warren may be inclined to challenge Clinton if the current frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination doesn’t strike a sufficiently populist stance.

I don’t have a clue what Warren will do. I don’t know what Clinton will do either for that matter, though she sure looks like a candidate. But I’m having a hard time following the crackup narrative for two reasons: consolidation and fear.

The most important challenge facing the Democratic Party isn’t figuring out how to rectify rising entitlement spending and recurring budget deficits in the face of Republican opposition to taxes. (That can wait.) It is to sustain the Affordable Care Act. Every other task pales in comparison. If Obamacare fails, the Democratic Party fails, and the philosophy that drives it – collective action by the national government to advance the common good – takes a brutal hit.

If Obamacare’s status isn’t secure by 2015, the Republican assault on it will be more vicious than ever, with conservatives viewing 2016 as perhaps their last chance to uproot the law. Even if Obamacare has grown secure – with enough of the right people enrolled on the exchanges, narrow fixes tailored to some of the law’s losers and popular support growing – it will probably still demand a concerted Democratic defense. Given the current paucity of Republican ideas, conservatives will almost certainly continue attacking Obamacare as a matter of identity.

The other factor likely to keep Democrats more united than not is fear. Democrats don’t just say the new Republicans are crazy and dangerous; they genuinely believe it. As long as the tea party remains the fuel powering Republican politics, Democrats will bury their divisions just long enough to mount a solid resistance to the threat.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be fights or that Warren won’t be the face of serious Democratic discontent. Someone is bound to run against Clinton; if not Warren then another challenger. What’s more, the 2014 election could alter the party chemistry. In any case, grievances with Obama, Clinton and the Democratic establishment will no doubt be given a hearing all the way through 2016. But that’s a long way from a party coming apart at the seams.

“I see no evidence whatsoever” of that, said Democratic media consultant Doc Sweitzer in an email. “It’s easy to stay united when the other side has formed a circular firing squad.”

David Winston, a top strategist for Republican House leaders, had a similar reply: “Not sure I see that at this point,” he wrote in an email. “What is the choice being defined if it were Clinton versus Warren? Is that a choice that splits the moderates and the left because it is seen 1 / 8as 3 / 8 a fundamental difference? Right now the Democrat challenge in setting things up for either 1 / 8candidate 3 / 8 – is the struggling economy, and the management of the implementation of the ACA.”

The hashtag #demsindisarray has recently, and amusingly, become popular on Twitter (I associate it particularly with Slate’s Dave Weigel). It usually accompanies tweets on the latest Republican meltdown. Until recently, Democrats often were in disarray. Under Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, not so much. And it’s quite possible that when they turn their attention from consolidating past gains and defending against a Republican Party they consider dangerous and loony, they will be in disarray again.

But as long as Obamacare is nestled in a baby carriage perched on the edge of a precipice, with one wheel dangling over the edge, the Democratic Party will band together in its effort to keep it from plummeting. And as long as Dr. Strangelove seems like a plausible tea party candidate for high office, Democrats will mostly resist the urge to commence shooting their own.

Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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