Obama's Blanche Lincoln Problem and The Liberal Toilet

How could 10,407 Arkansans be wrong?

That was the margin of victory for Blanche Lincoln -- narrow by any standard.

From all the crowing in Washington, however, you'd think Lincoln had better numbers. Or that the two-term incumbent wasn't forced into a run-off in the first place. Or that the White House has a handle on these intramural battles.

In fact, the dynamics that drove Lincoln's run-off will likely rile races around the country. But some White House officials are already drawing the wrong lessons from Arkansas.

Take the senior administration aide who called Politico's Ben Smith on Wednesday morning, eager to declare that unions ""flushed"" ten million down the toilet in a ""pointless"" primary. That public servant is either disingenuous or clueless.

"If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country," the aide said, "that could have made a real difference in November."

This criticism misreads the entire insurgency on the Left -- and may cause more heartburn in November.

President Barack Obama's political team can wish that its base was focused on defending a governing majority. But labor has joined cause with anti-establishment, liberal groups that believe changing the membership of the party's congressional majority is as important as growing it.

After watching Democratic incumbents freeze out a litany of progressive proposals, from the famous public option to the Employee Free Choice Act -- which Democratic politicians have decided to support through speeches, not floor votes -- some allies are wising up.

That is why most Pennsylvania primary voters rebuffed Obama's endorsement of Arlen Specter, who had become a reliable ally in the Senate, and it's how Bill Halter managed to fund a competitive campaign against an incumbent in three months flat.

After Lincoln prevailed, a White House official told me that the political shop is not trying to micromanage the left.

"The White House is not in the business of telling people what to do, other than to encourage support for candidates that are supportive of the president's agenda," the aide said, stressing that Obama's endorsements run the "ideological spectrum."

Because they back the Obama agenda, the aide noted, the president backed Senators Specter, Lincoln and Boxer.

But by taking every opportunity to endorse these incumbents -- and to chide liberals for backing like-minded candidates -- the White House only risks exacerbating the enthusiasm gap in the Democratic base.

And while Washington's political class studies tea leaves to intuit any policies the tea party might support, some experts still share the White House's apparent confusion over what liberals want.

Just this week, Amy Walter, the generally thoughtful editor of Hotline, marveled that Lincoln was even facing a Democratic challenge after backing Obama's health care bill. "Blanche Lincoln actually supported the health care bill," Walter said on Hardball, "that's what's quite remarkable about this."

You'd have to tune out a lot of campaign commercials and leave a trail of unread email to think that Lincoln's opponents drew the line at simply voting for Obama's bill. On health care, progressives were upset that she helped thwart the public option.

The Progressive Campaign Change Committee (PCCC), which mobilized about $250,000 and 380,000 phone calls for Halter, repeatedly hammered Lincoln on the issue. Stephanie Taylor, a labor organizer who did stints at the DNC and MoveOn before co-founding PCCC, told me that the group backed Halter partly to add pressure on other Democratic senators to support "progressive priorities like the public option."

Win or lose, these concerns are not just going to evaporate -- or disappear down that proverbial union toilet.

The anti-incumbent mood has catalyzed unusually competitive primaries, in both parties. The issues and arguments raised in pre-season may keep reverberating. And even candidates who lose primaries can set off political changes with long-term impacts.

Just ask Barack Obama.

Exactly ten years ago, of course, he lost a long-shot primary battle when he proposed changing politics as usual by challenging the powerhouse incumbent Rep. Bobby Rush. And it says something about the limits of power -- or imagination -- that today's President Obama would be unlikely to endorse that upstart candidate Obama.

Ari Melber writes a monthly column for POLITICO, where this first appeared. He Twitters here and hosts a Facebook group for politics here.