WASHINGTON -- Democrats have a long history of fighting among themselves, but the spectacle of the White House attacking its liberal base and party leaders distancing themselves from their president in the midst of a critical midterm election is a new low even for them.
Democratic candidates from Texas to Indiana do not want to be seen campaigning with President Obama. His chief spokesman says the president's critics in the party's left wing ought to be drug tested because of their extremist views on health care and defense. And Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid rejects Obama's insensitive remarks supporting the right to build a mosque near Ground Zero.
Individually, each of these issues reflect a party at war with itself. Collectively, they suggest a dysfunctional party in turmoil that raises profound questions about its inability to govern and a troubling disconnection from mainstream America.
The party's internecine divisions broke wide open when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told the Hill newspaper last week: "I hear these people saying he's like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested. I mean, it's crazy."
Gibbs, clearly operating with the full approval of the president's high command, made it clear that he was talking about the party's "professional left," who will not be satisfied until "we have Canadian health care and we've eliminated the Pentagon."
Gibbs did not name names, but he was obviously talking about the Moveon.org people and other activists on the far left who helped elect Obama and are now lobbying missiles at him on everything from his timid economic policies to the widening war in Afghanistan.
No sooner was that issue bubbling on the party's front burner than Obama unloaded another hot button issue at a time when the party wanted its full focus to be on the dismal economy and 10 percent unemployment. At a White House dinner celebrating the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, he made it very clear that he supports the construction of the 13-story Islamic cultural center that will include a mosque about two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood.
That triggered an explosion of criticism in his party, both private and public, culminating Monday with a statement from Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid. who said the president was wrong and that the mosque should be built somewhere else. If other Democrats were reluctant to publicly distance themselves from the president, Reid's statement was the green light that they shouldn't hold back.
He was joined by Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, a Senate candidate in a very conservative state. "I support freedom of religion, but let's give the families of 9/11 victims a voice about where this mosque should be placed because putting one near Ground Zero isn't appropriate," Melancon said.
Other Democrats said the president was wrong to begin with, but when he attempted to back away from his previous White House remarks, he sent a clumsy, mixed message that only compounded the issue and made him look weak in the process.
"The danger here is an incoherant presidency," said Democratic strategist David Morey, vice chairman of the Core Strategy Group that provided Obama's 2008 campaign with communications advice.
A recent CNN poll showed 68 percent of Americans were opposed to building the mosque so close to hallowed ground, including 70 percent of independents.
All of this bickering is taking place at a time when Democrats are distancing themselves from Obama, whose approval/disapproval polling numbers (42 percent to 50 percent) are in a steep nosedive, the economy is weakening and Democrats face massive losses in the midterm elections.
Not just distancing themselves, mind you, but harshly criticizing him directly in their ads. In Indiana, for example, Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly is running an ad against illegal immigrants as pictures of Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are flashed on the screen.
"That may not be what the Washington crowd wants, but I don't work for them. I work for you," Donnelly says in the TV spot.
Right after Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, a political novice, survived a brutal party primary with the help of the Obama White House, the senator balked when he was asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos if he wanted Obama campaigning for him in the fall.
"We will have to see. We will obviously do what's right for the campaign ... and we'll see what happens between now and November," Bennet replied.
"That's not a yes," Stephanopoulos persisted.
"I just won the primary about six minutes ago so we're going to have to give it some thought," he said.
A lot of thought, most likely, because the latest polls show his conservative Republican opponent, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, leading him by 5 points or more.
With a new Gallup poll showing Republicans with a 7 percent lead in a generic ballot test, and a 13 percent lead among independent voters, a lot of vulnerable Democrats are in Bennet's shoes and will not be calling upon Obama to campaign for them.
The intraparty divisions afflicting the president and his party recall the famous Napoleonic axiom, which says, "Never interfere with an enemy while he's in the process of destroying himself."