Let's assume you are a conservative or libertarian-leaning voter, a Constitutionalist if you will. And further, let's assume you live in a Congressional district usually represented by Republicans, but you found conditions last year, or during the ’06 election, to be such that you were open to considering casting your vote elsewhere, rather than for your usual tired choice. I'm not asking for a show of hands, but just between us, does that sound a little familiar? If so, it’s Okay. A lot of us can identify.
On one hand, you wanted a change from the ineffective K Street-compromised Republican Party. But, on the other hand voting for a candidate steeped in the post-modern, big-government Democratic belief system didn’t have much appeal either.
You faced a tough choice. You watched, aghast, while the Republican controlled House ran the deficit up, but you knew that putting Democrats in charge would likely make fiscal problems worse. Similarly, while you were losing patience with the war in Iraq, you were disturbed by the fact that the official Democratic Party was talking openly about packing up and moving the war into Afghanistan. Democrats haven’t run a war-to-win since the days of Give ‘em Hell Harry.
You were appalled by Republican scandals involving everything from sexual impropriety to outright bribery. But in the back of your mind a little voice kept reminding you that Democrats wrote the book when it came to sleaze, whether it was banging interns or stashing envelopes of cash in the freezer. Some of it, back in places like Chicago, was worse than that.
No, the fact was no matter how upset voters had become, many weren’t quite willing to “Vote Democratic.”
Enter, the Blue Dogs.
Democrats, while they may not share in them, at least understand what the nation’s beliefs are. They are constantly polling, market testing and focus-grouping. They understand that this is essentially a conservative-leaning country. They know it but they don't like it. Every time you hear one of them derisively complain about the “hicks” and “rednecks” that run the country, they are, in effect, acknowledging that fact.
Knowing how weary voters were becoming with Republicans, yet realizing the limited appeal the Democratic message has in much of America, Party leaders lead by current White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, went on a talent search. They combed the wobbly toss-up districts looking for nice, straight, church-going, flag-waving Democrats who would not scare-off conservative voters, and who would be willing to run for office. They sought squeaky-clean candidates who might offer a comfortable alternative to simmering Republican discontent on one hand and a plunge into economic radicalism on the other.
One thing I can attest, having worked both sides of the political street over the years, Democrats are a visceral, two-fisted party. No matter what set of beliefs they have followed in any given era of our Nation’s history, be it Jim Crow, the New Deal, Vietnam – at first pro, then anti – or nationalized health care, they are a sharp, hard-case party and have been since the days of Andrew Jackson. I have known Democrats at their best; warm, humorous and steely at the same time. My Dad was a Democrat in his heart until the day he died, although he officially switched with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
The plan Rahm Emanuel presented was simple: The Party supplied cash and campaign expertise, and the candidates, if elected, would be allowed to vote their conscience. All Emanuel claimed to want was a Democratic Majority running things. Thus, beginning with the 2006 election, there were Democrats running for Congress who were pro-life, who were members of the NRA, who knew what running a small business was all about.
This strategy extended the Democratic Party reach beyond Union-dominated wards and dying rust belt cities, beyond Hollywood and the arts-community, beyond the campus ivory towers and up-scale “latte towns”. The independent message of the Blue Dogs carried the Democratic Party right into the heart of the country. These were Democrats who were not at all like the screaming protesters camped out in front of W’s Texas ranch, or the radicals throwing concrete blocks through storefront windows in riots across the nation, or the ones scrawling assassination threats on washroom stalls.
No, these Democrats were presented as a safe, reasonable alternative to the bla-bla-bla of the Republicans. These were Blue Dog Democrats.
And across the nation, in district after district, these candidates looked straight into the television cameras and told voters:
“I will be your independent voice in Washington.”
And it worked, at least as far as getting elected was concerned.
Voters in those Uber-Liberal parts of the country where family-values, so called, are viewed as a quaint memory from America's socially repressive past continued to vote for the usual flock of standard-issue Democrats. No surprises there.
But Blue Dogs helped the Democrats win a bare House majority in '06. Then, when the dust finally settled after the '08 election many more conservative districts elected Blue Dogs. There are now 56 of them in Congress. In fact, they provide entirely the comfortable majority that the Democratic Party now enjoys.
The roots of the original Blue Dog Democrats go back to the mid-1990s when the size and cost of government was an issue that cut across party lines. Their website states:
“The fiscally conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition was formed in 1995 with the goal of representing the center of the House of Representatives and appealing to the mainstream values of the American public. The Blue Dogs are dedicated to a core set of beliefs that transcend partisan politics, including a deep commitment to the financial stability and national security of the United States.”
While the Blue Dogs were effective fifteen years ago in helping get spending under control, balance the budget and trim down government, the fact is that they, like many Republicans (which is another story), have compromised their beliefs. When it comes to challenging modern era core-Democratic doctrine they have lost their bite, and they don’t have much bark left either.
That promise to “vote their conscience”, well, the minute they were sworn in that went away. Twenty-two of the Blue Dogs voted for the job-killing “Cap and Trade” Bill which was supposedly designed to halt Global Warming. And, fifty of them voted “yes” on the pork-packed, ear mark-laden $800 Billion Dollar stimulus bill. The Blue Dogs ran out of gas about the time Independents and restive Republicans voted for them.
Over the last few months health care reform, this Administration's keystone issue, has devolved into a Washington Melodrama. A confusing mess. On one side we see a driven, grimly determined Administration. They are bent on winning at any cost, but they are not explaining "Winning what?" On the other side are a growing list of “enemies”; the “mobs”, the “tea-partiers”, talk radio, Fox News commentators, the greedy doctors and insurance people, along with an increasing majority of the American Population.
“Any nation that can’t maintain clean public restrooms shouldn't try to run a socialized healthcare system,” P. J. O’Rourke said. Many people think he’s on to something. How will this turn out? Hard to say.
Right now as you read this, those Blue Dogs are getting plenty of advice on how to vote when the plan comes up. They are being told that “This bill is too big to let personal opinions about fiscal responsibility or concerns about the proper role of government get in the way. You don’t have to read it, you don’t have to understand it, you don’t have to like it. You just have to vote ‘yes’.” Your “independent voice in Washington” is barely a whisper.
Knowing, as we do, the nature of power politics, especially Chicago power politics which is what we now have in Washington, it is safe to say that these private conversations are especially pointed. It is being intimated to the Blue Dogs that their future personal fortunes and happiness depends on how they vote.
“We know that certain segments of the population do not favor this plan and will work hard to defeat you in next year’s election. If you vote “yes”, you will have our full support. In the event you lose re-election you will be looked after. It is a tough economy out there, you’ll need friends. Your wife and family will need friends. We can see to it that doors are held open for you. We’ll help you find employment; in a federal agency, in a State House, a University, in banking, the auto industry, advertising, some tax-free foundation.
“If you cast any other than a “yes” vote, you will be finished. You will be cut from the herd and shunned.”
In short, the Blue Dogs are not facing a choice on how they wish to vote on health care. They are being offered a choice on what kind of personal future they wish to have.
“Your Independent voice in Washington” is up against it right now. The Blue Dogs didn’t bargain for any of this in the sunnier days of last year’s election or in the warm glow of victory, but that’s what they have got.
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. For years books will be written about it.