Defiant Democrats In Disarray

Republicans may be having their problems right now, what with John Boehner being forced to adopt a strategy he clearly doesn’t like for navigating the fiscal shoals just ahead. But hey, in any period of turbulence, there’s always room for a “Democrats In Disarray” story line, and the New York Times‘ Peter Baker and Jeremy Peters have dutifully offered one up as a table-setter for the budget fight:

In recent weeks, disgruntled Democrats, particularly liberals, have bolted from the White House on issues like National Security Agency surveillance policies, a planned military strike on Syria and the potential choice of Lawrence H. Summers to lead the Federal Reserve. In private, they often sound exasperated describing Mr. Obama’s operation; in public, they are sometimes only a little more restrained.

They then interview Bernie Sanders, who has, of course, never for a moment pretended to be some sort of Democratic team player. You have to get deep into the second page before another Vermonter, Howard Dean, puts the “Democrats In Disarray” story in its proper context:

Howard Dean, the former Democratic Party chairman and Vermont governor, said discord was unsurprising. “You don’t see a lot of lock step among Democrats under any circumstances, so I don’t find it at all surprising that they would disagree with him about N.S.A. or Syria,” he said. But he predicted the looming fiscal clash would consolidate support again. “I can guarantee you the Democrats are going to unite around the president when the Republicans try to shut the government down.”

Yep. The idea that Democratic restlessness or outright opposition over a few issues where they disagree with Obama will somehow inspire trouble on issues where they don’t makes little sense, and frankly, represents formula journalism of an annoying type (made worse by Maureen Dowd’s appropriation of the piece to support one of her columns asking us to share her disappointment with Obama).

Back when half the hep world was predicting a lefty primary challenge to Obama in 2012, I often referred to the Gallup Poll’s breakdown of presidential approval ratings, which invariably showed Democrats and Liberal Democrats sticking with him far more than you’d guess from journalists or disgruntled elites. So let’s look at it again: in the last month, a relatively bad patch for Obama’s overall Gallup approval ratings (bouncing around from 44% to 46%), his support levels from self-identified Democrats have ranged from 78% to 83%, and among Liberal Democrats from 81% to 86%. These numbers have been higher, to be sure, but this isn’t the stuff of some “revolt,” or to use the term deployed in the Times article’s headline, “defiance.”

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

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.