Yesterday's Trade Deal Snafu Reveals a Democratic Party Struggling to Find Its Way Past the Obama Presidency

It's Elizabeth Warren vs. Barack Obama-and Elizabeth Warren is winning.


credit: Tim Pierce / Furniture Fair / CC BY

The conventional wisdom amongst most Washington communicators is that the vast majority of the public cares very little about congressional procedural arcana.

So when White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest refers to a blocked Senate vote as a "procedural snafu"—as he did 10 times yesterday—you can infer with reasonable certainty that the snafu in question is one that the White House would prefer most everyone ignore.

But this particular procedural snafu is worth paying attention to, because it reveals quite a bit about the fractured and uncertain state of the Democratic party, and the troubles it will have maintaining unity and strong leadership heading into 2016.

The bill being considered would have given President Obama fast track authority on deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement with a large number of nuances and provisions, but that is in general designed to reduce barriers to trade with 11 Pacific Rim nations. The trade deal is currently Obama's top legislative priority, and he's personally lobbied Democratic Senators heavily to support it. Yet in yesterday's vote, all but one refused to do so. The no votes included Senators like Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) who had been broadly supportive of the trade agreement. As a result, the vote failed to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to clear a Senate filibuster.

It was a stinging rebuke to a sitting president from his own party; the last time this happened, reports Bloomberg's Sahil Kapur, was in 2007, when Republicans filibustered President Bush's immigration reform bill.

The rareness of the event, and the near-unanimity with which Senate Democrats opposed Obama, makes it clear that the Democratic Party is undergoing a kind of quiet, unofficial coup. President Obama isn't in charge anymore. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) is.

Warren, backed by labor union support, led Democratic opposition to the trade deal. President Obama has pushed back forcefully, calling her "absolutely wrong" on the merits, and dismissing her as "a politician like everyone else." But yesterday, at least, Warren won out. Based on the vote, it was hardly even a contest.

Since 2008, President Obama has been the clear leader of the Democratic party, its most influential agenda-setter and its best known and liked public representative. He set the party's major goals and both delivered and developed its biggest messages. With few exceptions, the rest of the party followed his lead.

Yesterday's vote revealed a split between the president and significant parts of his own party, much of which looks ready to leave him behind as it pursues a more aggressive progress agenda under Warren's guidance. She may not be leading the party in an official, managerial capacity, but there's little question that her ideas and her rhetoric are driving the split and the shift.

Not every Democrat is entirely ready to sign on to Warren's approach, of course. Which is why, in addition to suggesting a divide specifically between President Obama and his party, the squabble over the trade deal also hints at the party's deeper internal fractures as the Obama era comes to a close, in particular, the disagreements between its more absolutist progressive wing (which is more opposed to free trade) and a somewhat more moderate centrist faction (which is more willing to back trade deals). 

For an in-depth look at these increasingly visible internal disagreements, it's worth reading Robert Draper's excellent piece on "The Great Democratic Crack-Up of 2016" in this week's New York Times Magazine. In particular, Draper makes a strong case that the Democratic divide is deeply linked to the Democratic party's dim electoral standing and prospects below the presidential level:

The Democrats lost their majority in the Senate last November; to regain it, they will need to pick up five additional seats (or four if there's a Democratic vice president who can cast the tiebreaking vote), and nonpartisan analysts do not rate their chances as good. The party's situation in the House is far more dire. Only 188 of the lower chamber's 435 seats are held by Democrats. Owing in part to the aggressiveness of Republican-controlled State Legislatures that redrew numerous congressional districts following the 2010 census, few believe that the Democratic Party is likely to retake power until after the next census in 2020, and even then, the respected political analyst Charles Cook rates the chances of the Democrats' winning the House majority by 2022 as a long shot at best.

Things get even worse for the Democrats further down the political totem pole. Only 18 of the country's 50 governors are Democrats. The party controls both houses in only 11 State Legislatures. Not since the Hoover Administration has the Democratic Party's overall power been so low.

Democrats, in short, look surprisingly weak outside of the White House; certainly they appear weaker than much of the recent triumphant rhetoric about the party's future prospects would suggest. But the party's current source of strength in the White House will be gone soon, so competing factions within the party are vying for control and influence in the post-Obama era. Obama has long been the biggest factor in determining the party's identity and agenda, but without him, there's a power vacuum to fill. 

What about Hillary Clinton? She is, without a doubt, am extremely strong force within the Democratic party. If she wins the 2016 presidential election, she will become even stronger still.

Yet what yesterday's trade deal kerfuffle suggests is that the White House, which is always a party's biggest power center, may no longer confer as much influence as it once did. And it may even be that, Hillary Clinton, despite her pull within the party, would not be able to fully unify the party when and where it is split internally, as it is over free—or at least free-er—trade.

At the very least she seems to believe that she does not have that power right now. One of Hillary Clinton's political talents is the ability to calibrate the Democratic party's exact center of gravity at any given moment and then position herself at precisely that point. This makes her a useful barometer of where her party is at any point in time.

So it's rather telling, then, that Clinton, who has previously backed free-trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, has hedged on the current trade agreement, refusing to take a specific position. In contrast, Clinton has been perfectly clear about how she views Elizabeth Warren—as a "progressive champion" and a "special kind of leader" who "never hesitates to hold powerful people's feet to the fire" (including "presidential aspirants").

Yes, a handful of Senate Democrats may eventually change their minds, and the trade deal may well eventually pass. But the point is that Clinton, like many in her party, is unwilling to stand firmly behind President Obama and a free trade deal he strongly supports. Yet when it comes to Elizabeth Warren, there is no such hesitation. That's the present state of the Democratic party. It may be the future as well.