The loss of Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in the Arkansas Senate Democratic primary runoff election resulted in a rare outburst of intense, sometimes nasty, griping between the White House and the organized labor community on Tuesday night.
Shortly after Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) emerged victorious, an anonymous White House aide began spreading word that the President Obama's political team thought that the money unions had spent on Halter's candidacy was a massive waste and damaging to the party.
"Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise," the unnamed official said to Politico's Ben Smith. "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."
Another senior Democrat (who also would not be quoted by name) echoed the point in an exchange with the Huffington Post. "Labor is humiliated," the source said. "$10 million flushed down the toilet at a time when Democrats across the country are fighting for their lives, they look like absolute idiots."
It was a remarkably blunt dumping on the unions. And, in the process, it provided one of the most telling revelations as to how frayed the relationship between Obama and the modern labor movement truly is. Up until now the two parties have generally aired their disagreements over policy and politics in private, with scant public acknowledgment that friction was building below the surface.
But it clearly is there, in part because of legislative disappointments, but mainly because of labor's decision to go after moderate and conservative Democrats. Asked to explain why the White House would so quickly disparage the labor unions (namely the SEIU and AFL-CIO) after an embarrassing primary outcome, another White House aide said that "folks are just tired," noting that the administration has also taken a heaping of criticism from speakers at the progressive Campaign for America's Future conference taking place this week in Washington D.C.
Labor, of course, found the verbal lashing genuinely appalling, and a confirmation of their larger philosophy to act in their own political self-interest.
"We are not an arm of the White House or the DNC or a political party," said AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale. "We work on issues. And if we feel like someone is standing up for working families, we support them, and if they don't, we won't support it. In the past, people would have assumed that was talk, but now we have backed that up with action."
"Is the lesson they are taking out of tonight that they can go after labor and anonymously trash us and we will put our tail in between our legs and slink home? That ain't happening," Vale added.
Driving home the point that the White House was cravenly hiding behind the cloak of anonymity in their attacks, the AFL-CIO spokesman signed off the conversation with the following: "My name is Eddie Vale of the AFL-CIO and I'm proud to fight for working families and I don't hide behind anonymous quotes."
These are the most acrimonious exchanges between the unions and the White House in recent memory, and it stands to reason that things will get worse before they get better. Labor, after all, seems even more inclined now to support what one official described as "accountability candidates" -- even if those candidates aren't the administration's preferred choices.
As proof Vale pointed to comments offered early in the day by the AFL-CIO's president Richard Trumka, who stressed that it was entirely unlikely that the labor organization would support Blanche Lincoln in the general election (the decision will ultimately be made by union members in Arkansas). Another labor source said that the SEIU would likely be sitting out the general as well. "How in the world can labor turn around and support her?"