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Originally published Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 9:04 PM

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Election-defection blues for the state's Democrats

The Democrats won the election. But as the recent defection in Olympia of two of the party's state senators shows, Danny Westneat writes, some of the sharpest battles here and elsewhere may turn out to be "blue on blue."

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Just as everyone was psychoanalyzing what's wrong with Republicans, it turned out it was Democrats who needed the therapy.

Conservatives may feel after the election here that they're living in "pagan Rome." It was in the triumphant liberal party, though, where Brutus and Cassius lurked.

By now a civil war was supposed to be raging on the defeated red side. But with news that two Democratic senators defected in the state Senate, thwarting Democratic control, the first shots fired were all blue on blue.

What happened to the victory party?

Jilted Democrats say this was solely a personnel problem. It's not them, it's the two senators — Rodney Tom, of Medina, and Tim Sheldon, of Mason County. Tom is a "conflicted individual," Sheldon the "longest-running joke in Olympia," they said.

State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz added that they're "lonely men that feel this need to be important."

It wouldn't be the first time pique hijacked a government body. Still, Democrats, you might ask yourselves: Why is it that this same blue civil war is breaking out in some other states? Over many of the same issues?

The term "blue civil war" was coined by Walter Russell Mead, a professor at Bard College in New York. Though a Democrat, he is a critic of the party's blindness to the bloat of many programs, from municipal bureaucracies on up to the federal entitlements such as Medicare.

He says Democrats are bound to turn on each other over whether to defend this creaky system or to cut back on it.

Mead cited Rhode Island, where public-employee unions are fighting their allies, various Democratic public officials, in court over a plan to cut back some pension benefits.

Then last week five Democrats joined with the GOP to take control of the New York state Senate. One big reason was to stop liberals from overturning a tax cap and spending cuts.

Here, after a constituent dubbed him a traitor, Sen. Tom insisted in an email he was blue at heart. But that his party isn't always rational about taxing and spending.

"We can't spend money we don't have," he replied. "George W. Bush was the most fiscally irresponsible President in the last 100 years, but that doesn't give Democrats a license to follow his stupidity."

Translation: Facing another billion-dollar-plus gap between spending dreams and revenue reality, Democrats have to get real about cutting back. Even though that may mean taking more in pension and other benefits from the hides of their main backers, the public unions.

My view is we could also afford to raise more in taxes to pay for some of what we want. That is another way to solve this.

But Tim Eyman's tax-limiting initiative 1185 passed in all 39 counties, including King. I voted against it, but Tom is right — you can't just pretend Eyman lost.

Maybe voters here, as anti-tax of late as they are anti-GOP, are being contradictory. Or maybe they're seeking a third path.

"In the face of economic realities, blue liberals are being forced to make fundamental choices about their values and goals," Mead wrote. He implied the choice should be to "defend public services for the young and the needy against the asphyxiating costs of state bureaucracy."

More likely that's the tension behind Tom's blue civil war. Not that he's lonely.

The problem is the Republicans he's joined up with have little credibility at doing the positive part — the defending of services for the young and needy. Tom may seek a "third way." But over on the red side he may find the same old across-the-board slash and burn.

Don't we have a fresh new governor? Maybe he can broker an unexpected peace in the blue civil war.

With victory is supposed to come spoils. But Democrats are finding that in politics what that usually means is a giant mess.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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