Be warned: “Dems In Disarray” is on its way back. That phrase is familiar to you if you’re a reader of the political press, because it has appeared in headlines so often it became a cliché long ago. The bitter joke among professional liberals is that political reporters are so predisposed to write about Democratic infighting that it will be applied to anything; if two Democratic members of Congress go to lunch and one orders a hamburger while the other gets a chicken sandwich, the reporter at the next table will start writing his “Dems In Disarray!” story.
Or at least that was the case for as long as anyone could remember, until Republican intra-party conflicts became so intense that they dominated everyone’s attention. And for the last few years, Democrats have been uncharacteristically unified, in both their policy goals and their tactics. But with likely losses in the upcoming midterm elections, followed by the winding down of the Obama presidency, we’re going to be hearing more and more about internal Democratic disagreement.
The stories are just starting to trickle in now. Here’s Politico, writing about how state and local Democratic officials are “going rogue” and taking on the Obama administration over policy. There are the endless stories about the Democrats wishing the President would play less golf, and the stories about Democrats who wish he would invite them along. As we get closer to November, we’ll probably be seeing more and more about Dem candidates “distancing” themselves from Obama, doing what’s best for themselves instead of what’s (supposedly) best for their party.
It isn’t that there’s something inaccurate about these stories in and of themselves. But if there is a change afoot, it has less to do with any sudden increase in Democratic disagreement than it does with some completely predictable political factors.
The first is the midterm election. Democrats could do almost everything right from here to November and still have a terrible night on November 4th. Redistricting and a more efficient distribution of voters have left Republicans with a built-in advantage in the House, so that they can hold on to a comfortable majority even if more people vote for Democrats for Congress, as happened in 2012. In the Senate, Democrats are defending more seats than Republicans this year, many of which are in conservative states. The Democrats running in those states would have to distance themselves from any Democratic president, but particularly one who’s so hated by conservative voters.
Then there’s the fact that the Obama presidency is approaching its final two years. At such a time, every ambitious Democrat is going to look for ways to forge a unique identity and elevate their profile. That means both more disagreement with the White House, and more competition for attention between Democrats, even those who aren’t running for president.
So there may in fact be less Democratic unity than we’ve seen in recent years. At the same time, it’ll be easy to make too much of the supposed disarray. At the moment it doesn’t look like there’s going to be much of a contest for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, a truly remarkable fact. While there are some policy differences within the party, you don’t see organized factions squaring off against each other in any meaningful way. There may be a “fight for the soul of the GOP” going on, but Democrats aren’t doing much soul-fighting.
And while there is some simmering displeasure with the President over issues like government surveillance and immigration, his approval among Democrats actually remains fairly high. His current approval among Democrats — around 80 percent — is where he’s been for significant portions of his presidency. That approval was in the 90s in the initial honeymoon period, then stayed around 80 percent for most of 2010 and 2011, then rose back up in the election year of 2012 as partisan loyalties became more salient, then settled back again. As a point of comparison, George W. Bush’s approval among Republicans fell as low as 55 percent in the final months of his presidency.
So when you see those “Dems In Disarray” headlines, not just this year but in the waning days of the Obama presidency, keep in mind that unless there’s a dramatic change, there won’t actually be anywhere near the level of “disarray” that these accounts suggest.