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What Makes Dogs Blue?

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a frequent contributor to a variety of political journals. 

While Jonathan Chait is definitely right that much of the difficulty with House Blue Dog Democrats on health reform (like climate change) has had to do with the legislative timing, there is still a residual question about their generally reluctant position towards much of the Obama agenda. And the oversimplistic answer to this oversimplistic question has often been that Blue Dogs tend to represent marginal districts they could lose by toeing the party line.

So now comes the ever-insightful Mike Tomasky with an analysis of how vulnerable those Blue Dogs really are. He keeps this analysis clean by limiting himself to those Members from districts carried last year by John McCain--i.e., those where fears of a voter backlash are most reasonable. And his conclusion is that the vast majority of Blue Dogs seem to have little to worry about based on their 2008 performance.

His conclusion:

Yes, some Democrats have to be very careful and not be seen as casting a liberal vote. But they're a comparatively small number. A very clear majority of these people have won by large enough margins that it sure seems to me they could survive one controversial vote if they [put] some backbone into it.

But many of these folks manage to sell this story line to Washington reporters who've never been to these exurban and rural districts and can be made to believe the worst caricatures. I say many of these Democrats are safer than they contend. People need to start challenging them on this.

Mike's post is very valuable in dealing with broad-brush stereotypes of the Blue Dogs and of Democratic "centrists" generally.  He doesn't, of course, deal with alternative explanations, including the diametrically opposed possibilities that they believe what they say they believe on policy issues as a matter of principle, or that they are deeply beholden to interests (whether home-grown or national) who oppose Obama's agenda.

But let's stick with electoral calculations. Mike plausibly assumes that any Democrat in a "red" district whose 2008 margin of victory exceeded McCain's might be in a pretty strong position to take a bullet for the donkey team.  Here, however, are three provisos to this argument:

  1. "Risking serious GOP competition" is not as compelling a motive as "risking defeat," but anyone familiar with how Members of Congress think would understand that the former is treated as a personal disaster by anyone ill-accustomed to heavy fundraising and campaigning. This is hardly a Blue Dog exclusive: Some may remember the disputes over racial gerrymandering during the early 1990s, in which some members of the Congressional Black Caucus stoutly defended the "packing" of their districts with African-Americans, at the arguable expense of overall Democratic prospects, on grounds that they deserved a safe, not just a winnable, seat. (To their credit, many CBC members volunteered for less safe seats during the next round of redistricting). And in all fairness, it should be remembered that many of the "loyal" Democrats who fulminate about Blue Dog treachery haven't had a competitive race since their first elections. Avoiding actual accountability to voters is hardly an honorable motive, but it's real.
  2. It's generally assumed by many analysts that 2010 is likely to be a pro-Republican year, particularly in districts carried by McCain in 2008. So 2008 performance levels aren't necessarily dispositive of 2010 prospects. But equally important, more than a few Blue Dogs are from states where Republicans are likely to control redistricting after 2010. Invincible Members tend to be treated kindly in opposition-party redistricting; potentially vulnerable Members could wind up with much more difficult districts than they represent today. This may seem to be a remote worry, but again, it's real.  
  3. Most Blue Dogs, whatever you think of their principles, loyalty, or ethics, are not stupid people. They understand that association with "liberal" Obama initiatives may be a problem, but that the value of the "D" next to their name on the ballot also depends on Obama's success as a president. So like any politician, they undertake a personal cost-benefit of their positions on legislation and the overall effect on Obama, the party, and political dynamics generally. This, as much as concerns over "timing," helps create the Kabuki Theater atmospherics of Blue Dog rhetoric. Most Blue Dogs want Barack Obama to succeed, but many would prefer that he do so without their own votes.  

This last factor helps explain why, in addition to the important timing concessions, the Blue Dogs have reached an agreement with Henry Waxman that will allow health care reform to emerge from the House, but probably with only enough Blue Dog votes to avoid disaster. It remains to be seen how many of the conceded and ultimately insignificant "no" votes from Democrats can be sorted into the principled, the suborned, or the politically endangered. In any event, the Blue Dog bark may be worse than its bite.

--Ed Kilgore