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How Bloody Will The Post-Trade Democratic Civil War Be?

Trade opponents and proponents agree: the battle is not about Democratic voters. It’s about Democratic activists. What happens to them after the dust settles on the biggest fight between Obama and his base of his presidency is anyone’s guess.

Posted on June 12, 2015, at 8:06 a.m. ET

President Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren in July, 2013.

President Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren in July, 2013.

WASHINGTON — There's a secret to the bloody war over trade happening inside the Democratic Party in Washington: No one, on either side, actually thinks Democratic voters care that much.

The fight over trade — or, more precisely, the Obama administration effort to regain so-called "fast-track authority" to install a sweeping new trade deal with Pacific nations — will reach its final conclusion on Friday, capping off the low point in Obama's relationship with the activist left of his second term. Obama allies like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown are excoriating him on the Senate floor. Progressive groups are pulling out all the stops to convince Democrats to cross the president. The White House is reaching all the way down to state-level progressive organizers to convince them to stop.

This week, the fight is in the House. Obama and his allies are hoping House Speaker John Boehner can rally enough Republicans to back the White House that the continuing Democratic opposition to fast track can be circumvented. The administration is also working Democrats from the inside, sending top representatives to Capitol Hill to shore up whatever Democratic support they have for trade. Voting is expected to occur Friday; trade policy supporters feel pretty good but aren't ready to say they've got it in the bag. Trade opponents continue to say their ranks are growing among Democrats, which could spell big trouble for Democrats.

Whatever happens, Saturday is going to be a big day for the Democratic Party, assuming the votes hit the floor as planned. The progressive left will have to figure out how to punish the Democrats that abandoned them, and the White House and its allies will have to rebuild a coalition stung by harsh rhetoric and sometimes personal attacks. There's been speculation by some that the rift could drag on, splitting the relatively united Democratic Party into two squabbling factions in the manner of the modern GOP.

But that doesn't mean voters care. Polling has shown Democratic voters, like most, don't know much about the trade deals, support trade deals in theory at least, and certainly don't rank trade among their top concerns.

"What we've really found overwhelmingly on [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] is that voters have no clue," Tom Jensen, director at Public Policy Polling, the Democratic-leaning firm.

A Pew poll late last month found a majority of Americans support "international free trade agreements," and that younger voters and minority voters support them slightly more than average. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from early May found Democratic support, particularly among the Obama coalition of younger, minority Americans, "has jumped significantly in the past five years," leading to the first overall plurality of respondents who "say that free trade with foreign countries has helped the United States" since 1999. The poll found more supporters than opponents across nearly all levels — income, age, ideology, race, party — a very different situation than in D.C., where Democratic lawmakers are mostly opposed to fast track, many vehemently, and Republicans are mostly supportive.

None of these polls address the president's specific trade deal, nor do they ask respondents to weigh in on the specific issues that have caused virtually all of the activist left to line up foursquare against the White House — the first thing those Obama's progressive opponents will tell you if you ask them about these polls. Pollsters note their findings don't show much voter engagement on trade even as they show support for the concept.

"This is an an issue more for elected officials and others in the political sphere than the average American. They're not as deeply involved in the intricacies," said Jocelyn Kiley, Pew associate director of research. "There's a divide at the political elite level, it's not the top issue for the public."

White House allies say the polling shows voters at best support them on trade and at worst show there won't be any residual impact on Democrats who vote against the left because Democrats largely support the ideas of free trade Obama is trying to advance.

"If this is a civil war there won't be any casualties like Eric Cantor on their side," said Mitch Stewart, a former top Obama aide and leader of the Progressive Coalition for American Jobs, a group aimed at advancing the president's trade agenda. Stewart referred to former House Republican leader Cantor, who lost his job after a surprise primary defeat in 2014, which some attributed to his demonstrated willingness to compromise on immigration legislation.

Why won't there be any Cantor-like casualties? Mike Gehrke, a top Democratic pollster who conducts research for the Progressive Coalition for American Jobs, said Democratic voters just aren't interested enough, and they don't mistrust Obama enough.

"There's not enough kindling for the fire," Gehrke said. "As soon as this vote is over, progressives are going to continue to support the president. It's because of his track record."

The Progressive Coalition for American Jobs is especially hated by administration opponents on the left who accuse it of trying to create an illusion of liberal support for Obama's trade plans that they say doesn't exist.

The voter disinterest in and general favorability on the issue, traditional progressive groups argue, is deceptive. While they acknowledge poll numbers showing American support for trade, they say trade polling doesn't capture voter ambivalence about fast-track trade authority, or the expectation from older voters that trade deals will cost jobs.

"I'll grant you that they are broadly for free trade — as long as you don't ask them about any of the actual reality, in which case things go south," said Jason Stanford at the Coalition to Stop Fast Track. But voter division "is not what we're talking about when we're talking about holding the Democratic Party together from here on out," he said.

"We're not talking about people who show up and vote every two years. We're talking about people who show up and knock on doors every two years," he said. "It's not that there's opposition to this, it's that [Democrats who support Obama on trade] are turning the most dedicated core of support on the progressive side into the most dedicated core of opposition."

And this is the weapon that the trade opponents are threatening to use: to withdraw their financial and organizing support in the future. In a recent USA Today interview, for instance, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka called out Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton for declining to take a position on the president's trade policy one way or the other, saying its "concievable" the powerful union federation doesn't endorse a candiate in 2016 over trade.

"I think she won't be able to go through a campaign without answering that and people will take it seriously and it will affect whether they vote for her or don't vote for her," he said.

Obama's trade opponents ramped up their rhetoric Friday morning ahead of the House's day of voting.

"We will not lift a finger or raise a penny to protect you when you're attacked in 2016, we will encourage our progressive allies to join us in leaving you to rot, and we will actively search for opportunities to primary you with a real Democrat," Jim Dean, chairman of the Vermont-based progressive group Democracy For America, warned Democrats in an early morning statement. "Those primaries could happen next year or they could happen in election cycles to come, but, make no mistake, today's vote to cut Medicare and fast track the destruction of American jobs will be remembered and will either haunt you or make you a hero."

But whether the trade opponents will actually follow through on the threat is less clear. Will they stand by and watch Democrats lose elections to Republicans to make their point on trade? Will they primary allies who crossed them this one time?

"The answer to that question will be determined on Friday. If we can stop Fast Track, I think that will change the whole tenor of the conversation going forward," Stanford said. "There is an element of this that is not analytical, that is not political process… There are some people in this town who feel personally betrayed, and I'm not sure they're going to be in a mood to forgive, and I know they aren't going to forget."

The plans don't go beyond the vote, however, at least not yet.

"There's not a game plan for [the day after the vote]. They haven't made a game plan for 2016," Stanford went on. "Everyone is thinking about Friday."

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