The Future of the Labor-Democrat Alliance

Blanche Lincoln's victory over union opposition throws light on a looming conflict

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One of the big stories of last night was Democrat Blanche Lincoln's victory in Arkansas. Enraged at her on-again-off-again support for their key issues, labor unions threw their support behind her challenger, defying the wishes of both Bill Clinton--who threw elbows at the last minute, accusing labor of trying to make an example of Lincoln--and, it turns out, the White House. Politico's Ben Smith got the quote of the morning, a "senior White House official" calling him to say that "organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise ... If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November."

So what does Lincoln's victory, and the added slap from Washington, mean for big labor? Here are some of the top political commentators' thoughts on where things go from here:

  • 'Ripped the Lid Off Simmering Tensions' The White House-labor showdown has been coming for a while, implies The Washington Post's Greg Sargent. "If anything, unions are likely to step up efforts to exercise their democratic right to back candidates against Dem incumbents who are bad on their issues. While these efforts are clearly hitting some walls, it seems like some sort of unseen line has been crossed, where labor would prefer to mount losing challenges than to do nothing at all."
  • This Means War  Jane Hamsher, leader of the liberal Firedoglake community, is furious. "Labor is not your bitch, and their money isn't yours to direct," she tells the White House. "They're supposed to take what, another six years of black eyes from Blanche Lincoln just because you say so?" AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale, whom Ben Smith got in contact with after the White House quote, seems to agree: "Labor isn't an arm of the Democratic Party ... It exists to support working families. And that's what we said tonight, and that's what we're going to keep saying."
  • Voters Don't Want Labor The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper calls the primary "a rejection of the ideas the unions are peddling."
  • Correction: Southern Voters Don't Want Labor "The South has always been the graveyard of the union movement," Salon's Gabriel Winant points out. But he does think these primary results signal some big shifts:
The direction we're headed in, judging by that White House official, is for Democrats to show the door to working-class voters. For years, Democratic leaders have desperately wanted theirs to be the party of upper-middle-class suburban professionals. And if Blanche Lincoln loses in November to her Republican challenger, as she probably will, all we'll be able to say is that Democrats got their wish: They wrote off working people, and working people wrote them off too.
  • Big Defeat, Nonetheless, argues Publius at Big Government. "[The unions are] interested in making sure that all Democratic incumbents will vote when bidden for card check." It didn't work. But "give the unions credit for daring, and for putting their money (or the money of their members) on the line. They're playing for high stakes ... They just came up a little bit short." Rick Ungar at True/Slant has a slightly harsher take, coming down roughly on the side of Ben Smith's anonymous White House official: "While the unions have an important political role to play in the election process, at a time when their members are struggling, wasting $10 million in the quest for revenge may not be the best possible use of memberships' hard earned money."
  • Labor Pressure Did Have Influence, Though "It DID force Lincoln to introduce a tougher derivatives bill," notes The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder.
Some tough conversations will be ahead for labor and the White House and the Democratic Party. Conversations that might start like this: "At a time when Democrats across the country are fighting for our lives, to spend $10 million to lose or barely win in Arkansas, to do that is almost criminal." Labor made its point. Don't taken them for granted. And labor will say: well, if not for us, President Obama wouldn't be getting a tough financial regulatory reform bill. To which the White House will say: really? And so it will go.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.