- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard for the Democrats. In January, they swept into the White House and took supermajorities in both houses of Congress. Intoxicated by their newfound power and leverage, they believed they had entered liberal nirvana, where their sheer numbers and political momentum would enable them to steamroll the opposition and pass whatever legislation they wanted.

Little did they know that the opposition they had to worry about wouldn’t come from Republicans, but from their own ranks. Democrat-on-Democrat mayhem threatens to turn the party into a political fight club.

Democrats also are learning that having a Democratic president doesn’t matter much if he doesn’t instill party discipline, particularly on issues as important to them as health care, Afghanistan and “cap-and-trade.

On health care reform, more liberal Democratic members of Congress, from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia insist that a government-run public option be included in a final bill. House Blue Dog Democrats, concerned that any reform costs would contribute to an already out-of-control national deficit, are dragging their heels on Obamacare.

Many Democrats have unanswered questions about the bill that was passed by the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday on a 14 to 9 vote: How can you give away a $1 trillion new entitlement and argue with a straight face that it won’t involve new costs? How could the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score it accurately last week ($829 billion over 10 years) when it’s merely a phantom bill with no legislative language in it yet? How can they vote for a bill that hasn’t factored in the cost increases that will occur when businesses offload their insurance responsibilities by throwing their employees into the ranks of the uninsured, paying the new fines instead of continuing to provide insurance?

Even if you take the CBO’s numbers at face value, what about the exponential costs that will explode in the second 10 years? What about the approximately 25 million people left uninsured by the bill? Won’t we still have to pay for their medical care if they walk into a hospital emergency room? How will the legislators sell a bill to voters that includes significant tax increases on the middle class (in the form of stiff penalties for non-coverage, higher premiums, and on medical devices like wheelchairs and new mothers’ breast pumps) while the “benefits” don’t kick in for three years? And how about reading the bill before voting on it?

Most Democrats may, in the end, fall in line behind whatever kind of legislative sausage emerges. But the intraparty fault lines that have emerged during the health care battle mean that Democratic unity on other issues may be even harder to achieve.

On Afghanistan, for example, Mr. Obama’s extended indecision about whether to fulfill Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional troops has created the space for another Democratic food fight.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. supports fighting the war like it’s a video game: with a technology-based counterterrorism focus rather than Gen. McChrystal’s troop-based counterinsurgency emphasis. Last week, Mrs. Pelosi rolled her eyes and recoiled when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested that Democrats would support whatever decision the president made on new troop deployments. This week, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said flatly, “Don’t send more combat troops.”

But California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the mission in Afghanistan is in “serious jeopardy” and advocated sending more troops. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also has signaled support for a troop surge, as have Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat.

Mr. Obama has both a military and a political choice to make, and his own party isn’t coalescing around a course of action. If anything, Mr. Obama’s own protracted dithering has allowed the Democrats’ divergent stands to become a story, which in turn, will only make his final decision more difficult.

And on cap-and-trade, Democrats again are sprawled all over the map. The party is deeply divided over the legislation, which barely passed the House and has taken an even more aggressive form in the Senate under the sponsorship of Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California. Many liberal members are pushing for stricter cuts in greenhouse gases, while many Democrats from rural, manufacturing and coal-producing states are throwing the brakes on it. Self-proclaimed socialist Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont argues that the bill needs to be made “stronger,” while Mr. Rockefeller of coal-rich West Virginia said of the Kerry-Boxer bill: “I am against it.”

The smooth sailing the Democrats envisioned for their agenda has hit choppy waters, and it’s not just because of the party’s traditional internal brawling, described so well by Will Rogers: “I’m not a member of any organized party. I’m a Democrat.”

The lack of presidential leadership on these issues has created openings for members of Mr. Obama’s party to argue among themselves. If he had directed each of these debates with a strong hand, Democrats would have had less time and inclination to commit fratricide. Just as important, even as they indulge in their own intraparty strife, they continue overall to push policies such as Obamacare and cap-and-trade that a majority of Americans don’t support.

As President Lincoln once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” particularly when that house is on the wrong side of the American people.

Monica Crowley is a nationally syndicated radio host, a panelist on “The McLaughlin Group” and a Fox News contributor.

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