Republicans have grown used to their party’s internal deliberations and squabbles spilling out into the streets and onto the politics sections of various media outlets. Family business does not stay private fare in the GOP for long. In contrast, the Democratic Party is far more disciplined.
It was not long ago that congressional Democrats’ refusal to uniformly toe the party line was a source of pride among the rank and file. “I am not a member of any organized political party,” Will Rogers famously quipped. “I am a Democrat.” Today, however, the party’s leadership in Washington has enjoyed remarkable successes in corralling their members and enforcing regimentation.
That could be changing.
With electoral defeats come divisions. Following two consecutive midterm disasters for Democrats under President Barack Obama, the party is in a weaker position than at any point in the last 90 years. This condition naturally gives birth to infighting and second guessing, primarily between members of Congress and the executive who also serves as the party’s leader.
That infighting appeared in the press recently as President Barack Obama and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) apparently had what was described as a terse exchange during a recent Democratic retreat in Baltimore. When the president implied that Menendez and others who supported the imposition of new sanctions on the Iranian regime were heavily influenced by special interests, Menendez reportedly asserted that he took “personal offense” to the president’s claim. Menendez’s position has only recently softened, but the potential for a bruising veto override fight in the Congress over new sanctions persists.
Now, as Democrats prepare to gather for their annual “issues conference” in Philadelphia, internal divisions threaten to explode the notion that the Democratic Party’s discipline exceeds that of the GOP. As Roll Call reported on Wednesday, some Democrats will take their frustrations out on another figure of authority within their ranks: Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
One target of frustration has been the minority leader herself. As the most nationally recognized House Democrat, many members see her as the face of the caucus’s electoral woes and for ambitious lawmakers, she is an obstacle in the way of new blood flowing into senior leadership ranks.
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the chairwoman of a leadership committee tasked with recommending rules changes to the full caucus, convened Tuesday the first of what she said would be several meetings exploring what members want to see done differently to improve mobility at the committee level, among other things.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus criticized recommendations to install term limits for panel leaders, saying the seniority system is the only way to protect lawmakers of color from being passed over for plum assignments.
Congressional Democrats already fired a shot across Pelosi’s bow in November when, in a rare rebuke, the House conference bucked a committee decision and installed Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) as ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee over Pelosi ally Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA). Many speculated that this was a response to Pelosi’s determination not to allow Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) to cast leadership votes in absentia while she was delivering her child, but it is also a response to Pelosi’s weakened position as leader of the smallest Democratic minority in the House since World War II.
On policy, however, there are more areas of potential agreement than disagreement. The Democratic Party’s shrunken status also means that there is more ideological homogeneity, and the party is set to rally behind a populist tax agenda. But even here there will be some friction as the party’s progressive wing attempts to assert itself as the dominant force under the Democrats’ big tent.
These liberal Democratic congressmen and women are spoiling for a fight with the president over his request for the authority to enter into free trade negotiations. This, too, could fracture the Democratic coalition in the House because, as Roll Call reported, “many of the moderates who make up the sizable New Democrat Coalition countering that opposing a trade deal could cost the party voters in swing districts, and in places that voted for Mitt Romney for president in 2012.”
If there is tension at this annual Democratic conference, will the press report on it as the start of a “civil war” with fringe Democrats in “open rebellion” against their more pragmatic leaders? Of course, they won’t. It might not even be an accurate characterization. It is clear, however, that the cracks are beginning to show. A party can only lose so many elections before the calls for internal reforms grow too loud to ignore.