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Divided Democrats look ahead through 2012

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
  • Democrats are divided as they seek the best way forward after losing the midterms
  • Liberal Democrats accuse Obama of selling out and demoralizing the base
  • Moderate Democrats are concerned about the consequences of keeping Pelosi as their House leader
  • Analysts differ over how much Obama should try to work with the GOP through 2012

Washington (CNN) -- One week removed from the great "shellacking" of 2010, Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are still picking through the ashes of their lost House majority and debating the best way forward.

Rumors of their demise are, of course, exaggerated. Republicans survived midterm massacres in 1974 and 2006; Democrats lived to tell the tale of 1994. Election night exit polls showed the GOP is no more popular among voters than the Democrats.

But any time a party loses at least 60 seats in the House and six in the Senate, recriminations are bound to fly. Angry liberals accuse the White House of selling them out on a range of issues -- public option anyone? -- and demoralizing the base. Diminished Blue Dogs point the finger at Speaker Nancy Pelosi's dismal approval ratings and complain about being saddled with unpopular stimulus and cap-and-trade plans, among other things.

Adding to moderate malaise: Pelosi's unexpected decision to seek another term as her party's House leader. The San Francisco speaker has been holed up in her Capitol Hill office this week, working the phones to stave off any possible challenge.

Her decision means more moderate Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer and more liberal South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn -- numbers two and three in the current House Democratic leadership -- are left fighting over the position of minority whip for the next Congress.

Some observers warn the Congressional Black Caucus will explode if Clyburn -- a veteran African-American legislator -- doesn't get the nod.

What does all of this mean? Maybe President Barack Obama picked a good time to pack his bags for Asia. But he can't avoid a radically changed landscape for the next two years as he pursues a second term.

Obama may have to further distance himself from House Democrats than Bill Clinton did after Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller told CNN.

"He's going to have to sell the liberal wing of the Democratic Party down the river in order to get reelected," she predicted, specifically citing negotiations over an extension of the Bush tax cuts.

Faced with a more uniformly liberal Democratic caucus led by Pelosi, Obama's got to "become a solo operator," Schiller said. He has "to step outside of the party box" and "reintroduce himself to the American public."

But Nathan Gonzales, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, warned Obama will rarely attract enough support from the Tea Party-influenced GOP to compensate for the loss of liberal support if he tries too much to position himself as an independent operator.

"The best thing for Obama is to get his party on the same page," Gonzales said. Republicans who may be inclined to strike a deal "are going to face a lot of pressure to resist working with the Democrats." To most conservative activists, "that's viewed as unacceptable. The moment you work with the Democrats, you're at risk of a primary challenge. That's a real threat."

Gonzales cited the example of moderate Maine GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe, who is up for reelection in 2012. The New England Republican has been a favorite of the administration and congressional Democrats looking for bipartisan cover, but is now facing a rising Tea Party threat in her backyard. Her home state, a moderate bastion in recent decades, just elected a sharply conservative Republican governor.

It's an open question how much politicians such as Snowe will be available to work with Democrats over the next two years.

Schiller and Gonzales differed over the impact of Pelosi staying on as the House Democratic leader.

"The president's still the president. He's still the leader of the Democratic Party," Gonzales said. "In the midterms, Pelosi was more of an issue because the president wasn't on the ballot. But 2012 is going to be about Obama and the direction he's taking the country."

Keeping Pelosi as the top House Democrat "means no change and Democrats can't afford that message," Schiller said, largely echoing the views of jubilant Republicans after the speaker announced her intentions last Friday.

Schiller also claimed Democrats may be making a mistake if they dump Clyburn from the party's leadership.

"Hoyer can present a moderate face, but it's unclear that he brings any change because he's been so visible" over the past four years, she argued. He's "indistinguishable from Nancy Pelosi to the average voter."

Clyburn, she contended, is "a smart strategic choice. He's a real southerner. Also, because he's African-American he may insulate the party from the most vitriolic race-based attacks from very conservative Republicans."

The "Democratic and Republican moderate voting base is the holy grail for 2012, and they won't react well to any attack on Clyburn that smacks of racism," she contended.

Hoyer's camp, however, asserts he is successfully convincing other House Democrats he is more of a unifying force than Clyburn. At the moment, Hoyer also has more public endorsements than Clyburn. A letter released late Sunday included the names of 30 House Democrats reflecting a broad cross-section of the Democratic caucus.

Sources close to both Hoyer and Clyburn have each told CNN their candidate will prevail. Other Democrats, meanwhile, are convinced both Hoyer and Clyburn will ultimately remain part of the leadership, with one of them taking the number-three slot of Democratic caucus chairman.

Stay tuned.