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Broken Embrace

Tuesday’s elections snapped Obama’s bond with the left.

WASHINGTON—This week's primaries should have been good news for Democrats. Instead, a stray comment from an Obama aide briefly threatened a civil war in the Democratic Party, which needs all the unity it can get.

The administration moved quickly to heal bad feelings that burst forth when an unnamed senior White House official disparaged organized labor's unsuccessful efforts to defeat Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas Democratic primary.

Clearly relishing Lincoln's runoff victory in a contest where she had President Obama's backing, the lieutenant told Politico: "Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise," adding that "if even half that total had been well-targeted ... that could have made a real difference in November."

The quotation instantly flew across the liberal blogosphere, arousing fury from a labor movement that had worked hard for Obama's election—and which many embattled Democrats are counting on for support this fall.

In an interview Wednesday morning, David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, backed the administration away from the incendiary words. "I don't associate myself with this quote and that's not the attitude of this White House," he said. "But do I think that these resources could have been better spent in ways that could have benefitted good progressive candidates around the country? Probably."

The blowup reflected frustration on the Democratic Party's labor left over the continuing high levels of unemployment and the difficulty of getting even mildly stimulative spending measures through a Democratic Congress this year.

"Our politics seems to be about a choice between apostles of hate masquerading as populists, and voices of complacency masquerading as progressivism," Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, told the liberal Campaign for American's Future on Tuesday. He spoke as voters in Arkansas and 11 other states were going to the polls.

Trumka spoke for an ambivalence on the left about Obama, declaring that "President Obama's recovery plan did a lot of good," but then adding pointedly that "it was underpowered compared with the strength of President Bush's economic catastrophe—in large part because it got pared back in a vain effort to satisfy hypocritical congressional Republicans and weak-kneed Democrats."

Such sentiments fueled the challenge to Lincoln. She prevailed narrowly over Lt. Gov. Bill Halter by running a campaign that even some of Halter's labor backers privately admired. They noted Lincoln's success in using opposition from national labor and liberal groups to reposition herself—a veteran of nearly two decades in Washington—as an outsider. Many also credited the ardent campaigning of former President Bill Clinton, still a very popular figure among Arkansas Democrats.

The skirmish between the White House and the unions distracted attention from a day in which the Republican Party continued to march to the right, endangering its efforts to court moderates who might otherwise be tempted to cast anti-Democratic protest votes this fall.

Exhibit A was the GOP's extraordinary success in bringing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid back from the land of the political dead. By nominating Sharron Angle, a tea party favorite, Republicans gave Reid the opponent he hoped for. She has been tied to groups on the far right and has said she wants to phase out Social Security for younger workers and abolish the Department of Education. Having run behind in the polls all year, Reid now finds himself ahead in at least one recent survey. 

In California, Republicans nominated two relatively moderate conservative businesswomen, Carly Fiorina to face Sen. Barbara Boxer, and Meg Whitman against Democrat Jerry Brown, who is trying to reclaim the governor's office he left in 1983. But both Fiorina and Whitman had to run to the right to win their primaries. They will now have to reconfigure their campaigns in the state that gave the nation Ronald Reagan but has since turned inhospitable to conservatives.

For most of the year, media attention has focused on discontent with Obama at the conservative end of politics. But this anger is likely to be far more important in shaping the Republican Party's future than the country's.

This week marked a turn in the story line, bringing home the unease with the president and conservative Democrats that has been building on the left. The administration and labor will get over their post-Arkansas spat because they have to. But the feuding is a sign of the toll high unemployment is taking on the president's support among those who were once his most passionate sympathizers. 

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E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group