Monday, July 19, 2010

Blue Dogs: Going to fade away?

Tom Schaller notes that it's Blue Dogs that are poised to take it in the teeth in November. No doubt most progressives would be happy with the Blue Dogs merely fading away into oblivion, even if it means that Nancy Pelosi has to deal with a diminished House majority. I'd be mildly inclined to disagree, but the more I think about it, the more I think that the Blue Dog phenomenon really is pretty much in its terminal stages, and the only interesting question is what sort of politics eventually supplants it.

I'm not sure I can write a grand narrative of the Blue Dog Coalition, but so far as I can tell it was part of a movement during the 1980s and 1990s in which Democrats from the South, the historical base of their party, were being squeezed between an increasingly liberal national Democratic Party and an increasingly conservative Republican Party. Most Southerners sympathized with the GOP's issue positions but many still thought warmly of Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy, regardless of how little they liked the more liberal-dominated current version of the party. So the solution that the Third Way/DLC/Blue Dog/Clinton wing of the Democratic Party came up with was to present an alternative that accepted many conservative axioms, like military hawkishness, but that preserved a lot of the social welfare policies that the South still liked. And it worked for a while, too. It kept the Democrats in control of Congress until 1995, and it got Clinton elected president in 1992 and 1996. Of course, the inherent limitation here was time: as the FDR-worshipping oldsters departed the scene and were replaced by their more conservative children and grandchildren who had less affection for the Democratic Party. This replacement process took some time to complete, but by the mid-1990s it had reached a tipping point and the Gingrich-led Republicans were able to flip much of the South over to them for good. At first, they just got all the real Dixiecrats who essentially were Republicans, but that replacement process has been going on ever since, and now it's the rest of the Blue Dogs who are endangered. Additionally, while the Blue Dog experiment was successful for a while, I think it was fundamentally unsustainable because it required a sort of displacement from the direction of the national Democratic Party which couldn't really be continued infinitely. They are supposed to be on the same team, after all. A vote for Travis Childers (D-Mississippi) really is a vote to keep Nancy Pelosi in the Speaker's chair.

So, depending on your orientation, the Blue Dogs are either a decades-old plot to sell out essential Democratic values, or a valuable check on the Democrats' liberal wing. Really, though, the Blue Dogs' time seems to be up because they simply have no coherent agenda, identity, or argument. They talk about the deficit a lot, but Blue Dogs voted for nearly all the big-ticket Bush items that exploded the deficit, such as Bush's wars, Medicare Part D, and the tax cuts. Most Blue Dogs opposed the deficit-cutting Affordable Care Act while many, like Evan Bayh and Blanche Lincoln, support an unfunded cut on estate taxes. There is no coherent thread running through these positions, aside from a desire to avoid getting too far to the left of the Republican agenda and not pissing off too many wealthy individuals. And since there's little love remaining among white Southerners for the Democrats, the only thing really keeping most Blue Dogs in their seats is their personal popularity (or that they represent seats so Democratic that they could potentially support more liberal members, such as the one held by Blue Dog Rep. Jim Cooper). Sen. Lincoln is an interesting test case here. She is an uber-Blue Dog who was elected in 1998 and was highly popular until the health care debate, when her popularity plummeted. She would have been drummed out of the caucus had she not voted for the bill, but her voters didn't care for it. Lincoln herself liked the idea and tried to make the bill more palatable by demanding some concessions that made the bill a bit more conservative, but did nothing to help her standing among the voters. What's more, she was entirely incapable of mounting any sort of argument in favor of the bill. I think it's generally true that the last thing Blue Dogs want to give their voters is a clear choice of agendas, because it's pretty clear they'd lose easily. This is not the state of affairs of a healthy political identity. Lincoln is down in the polls by 25 points and is hardly likely to rebound, though interestingly the more outwardly liberal Mark Halter polled much better than she did, which sort of makes one wonder if any of the premises underlying Blue Doggery even hold true anymore.

My only question is: what comes next? My hope is if that Blue Dogs throughout the South get defeated, that non-Blue Dog Southern Democrats like Rep. Tom Perriello would become the new models for a different kind of Southern Democratic politics. Perriello is not an across-the-board liberal by any means--he's conservative on abortion and guns--but he actually has a pretty solid argument to make and a decent ability to pitch progressivism to people who aren't its natural targets. He supported health care reform and ACES (i.e. the House's climate change bill), and he's actually pretty interested in making an argument and explaining his stances, with some real success. The Blue Dogs aren't very interested in advancing an argument so much as in cobbling together some sort of coalition of wealthy backers and indifferent voters to take advantage of incumbency rates. Perriello clearly wants to actually advance ideas and causes. He's in a tight race to keep his seat that the national climate doesn't look likely to help, and even if he wins it's not certain that he's not just a sui generis figure and that his politics aren't really exportable to other parts of the country. But one can always hope, right?

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.