Another Non-Struggle For the Soul

Even as much of the MSM buys into the largely phony meme of bitter internecine controversy among Republicans, who are actually united in a more-conservatism-with-tweaks strategy going forward, there’s growing talk of Democratic divisions over the current fiscal negotiations, perhaps extending to votes in Congress (and particularly the Senate). And although I am on record predicting there will be an actual “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party” at some point, it’s not clear it has to break out any time soon.

The latest flash point is a polling memo released by the Beltway centrist Democratic group Third Way, showing strong support among Obama voters for a “balanced” fiscal deal that includes “fixing” Medicare and Social Security in addition to higher taxes on the wealthy. “Fixing” is not defined in the polling, though Third Way tells us its recent focus groups show Democrats are open to “modernizing” the programs via “minor measures” like small boosts in the retirement age. Retirement age changes are typically defined by many progressive Democrats not as “modernization measures” but as “benefit cuts.”

WaPo’s Greg Sargent fears Third Way is trying to lead Democrats away from a consensus position that even its own polling supports:

The centrist reading of the election is harder to explain. The Third Way poll seems designed to create the impression that the public yearns for a centrist deficit agreement. It tells us Obama voters support a mix of tax increases and spending cuts as part of a “bipartisan” deficit deal and that they want lawmakers to “fix” entitlements. But so what? A mix of tax increases and spending cuts is the liberal-Democratic position. The argument is one over degree. No one is arguing for no spending cuts whatsoever or doing nothing on entitlements or the deficit. Rather, the left wants a fiscal cliff solution that doesn’t take benefits away from those who need them and doesn’t undermine the core mission of social programs and the safety net. On this, the voters have spoken clearly.

I agree, but so, too, would Third Way, give or take some details or messaging emphasis. The real conflict here is probably one of traditional mistrust between Democratic factions rather than an actual split on substance or strategy. The real “centrist” threat to Democratic unity, if any, would probably emerge from the remaining red-state Democratic Senators up for re-election in 2014, particularly Landrieu, Hagan, Pryor and Begich, who are leery about committing to a hard-and-fast position on killing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy–a position on which, BTW, Third Way is fully in line with more liberal Democatic groups.

So it’s probably too early to get too excited about potential “betrayals” by any Democrats or project any real split in the party. The fat will hit the fire, if ever, only after the administration comes to a negotiating position in conjunction with the congressional Democratic leadership.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.