Now the Democrats are the divided party

WASHINGTON — The liberal news media have gleefully been reporting the GOP’s political quarrels for many years. But that exaggerated story line all but vanished last week in the aftermath of the Democrats’ humiliating defeat in the midterm elections.

Democratic leaders and their rank and file were deeply divided over the budget that was worked out in a deal with House Republicans — not only among themselves, but with President Obama, too, whom they bitterly blame for their deep losses in Congress.

Democratic Party discipline has been eroding fast as a result of Obama’s growing unpopularity, but last week the Democrats were deserting him in droves. And word ran like wildfire through their ranks that from now on, it’s everyone for themselves.

Their party’s widening split wasn’t contained to Capitol Hill, either. It quickly spread to the presidential nominating battle, too, where liberals were repudiating Hillary Clinton and throwing their support to ultra-left-wing Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. More on this in a moment.

The $1.1 trillion budget bill that passed late Friday night contained two provisions, engineered and pushed by the Republicans, that were poison to the Democratic caucus.

The first provision included language that rolled back key parts of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010 that excessively regulated Wall Street and the nation’s financial laws to the detriment of the economy. And the second relaxed campaign contribution limits that will allow wealthy donors to contribute three times the present legal limit to the national political parties.

The omnibus budget bill, in which these provisions were buried, was worked out behind closed doors with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Obama not only decided to support it, but personally lobbied Democrats to send it to him for his signature to avoid yet another government shutdown on his watch.

But Democratic divisions ran deeply in the House, where Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged her members to oppose the bill, while the second-ranking Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and others supported it.

In the end, 139 Democrats, out of 201 members total, ignored Obama’s pleas for support and voted against the budget package, which passed by a narrow margin.

It sailed through the Senate on a bipartisan vote of 56-to-40. But not before a fiery speech by Warren, who called on party liberals to block the provisions to deregulate the Dodd-Frank bill and significantly enrich the Republicans’ campaign war chest for the 2016 elections.

“Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism we have seen in the executive branch,” she said. “Enough is enough with Citigroup passing 11th-hour deregulatory provisions that nobody takes ownership over but that everybody comes to regret.”

Warren’s speech is resonating strongly throughout her party’s liberal ranks, triggering growing calls for her to run for president.

Last week, more than 300 former Obama campaign officials released a letter urging her to oppose Clinton in the party primaries, declaring that “We want someone who will stand up for working families and take on the Wall Street banks and special interests that took down our economy.”

At the same time, the liberal online group — a major force in the party — announced that it was pouring at least $1 million into its campaign to draft Warren.

While polls showed that Clinton remains the Democrats’ choice for their nominee, she has come under increasing suspicion from Democrats for her cozy relationship with Wall Street tycoons and other powerful corporate interests.

Despite months of timid, vacuous speeches across the country, Clinton has yet to spell out any economic agenda to deal with a long underperforming economy, declining incomes, and a struggling middle class that’s been falling behind for the past six years.

More recently, she delayed formally entering the race, pushing off a public decision until the spring of 2015 — and fueling a variety of anti-Clinton narratives.

Privately, there was a growing buzz in liberal circles, who caution that Bill Clinton — her chief campaign strategist — slashed capital gains tax rates and signed free trade agreements, acts that went against Democratic Party orthodoxy. And that she might do the same.

“What we saw over the last couple of days is an example of a debate that is probably going to go on for a while in the party,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who was a high-level aide to Harry Reid.

Right now that debate is picking up a head of steam, triggering political tremors throughout a leaderless party now largely in ruins, both at the national and state levels.

And it’s building a potential groundswell for Warren to build upon and, quite possibly, take hold of a party looking for a leader who can rekindle the Democrats’ liberal passions.

“The dominant narrative remains that Clinton is the heavy favorite to be the Democratic nominee. But that story line is accompanied by another one — that the heart of the Democratic Party really wants Warren. And, as that story line continues, more and more people hear about it and a movement develops, fueled by the anti-Wall Street populism that Warren embodies,” writes Washington Post election analyst Chris Cillizza.

Warren, a former Harvard professor who is a freshman senator with no executive experience, is enjoying the calls for her to run and continues to make headlines in a party searching for a liberal leader who believes the answer to our troubles is all-out class warfare and a great deal more government than we have now.

But Democrats face a much bigger political obstacle in the 2015-16 election cycle. They gave us Obama, who has been an unmitigated disaster as president. And whoever is their nominee will be someone who cannot deny that they supported him and his policies for eight long unbearable years.