Blue Dog Blues

In July, 2009, before the watershed health care vote, the Blue Dog coalition consisted of fifty-two Democratic members of the United States House.  Formed in 1995, the Blue Dogs self-identify as fiscal conservatives representing "the center of the House of Representatives."

Nonsense -- and self-serving nonsense, at that.

Above all, the Blue Dog label is a money-raising scam.  Because they have successfully branded themselves as center swing votes in the House, Blue Dogs typically do far better at raising campaign funds from interests having business before Congress than do other non-leadership, non-appropriator Democrats.  Blue Dogs "are more keenly attuned than their colleagues to that force of universal goodness, the profit motive."

All but ten of the Blue Dogs voted for the failed stimulus bill; only fourteen voted against President Obama's 2010 budget, which foresaw trillion dollar plus deficits for a decade or more; more than half of the Blue Dogs voted for the health care bill -- and more than half were sent home following the 2010 general election, relegating House Democrats to the minority.  Since then, more Blue Dogs announced retirement to avoid difficult reelection battles, and another two fell in the April 24, 2012 Pennsylvania primary elections.  Blue Dogs are a dying breed in Congress.  Good riddance to them.  The Endangered Species Act should not be invoked to preserve them.

Thomas Frank at the Wall Street Journal pondered:

What makes the Dogs run? ... And why do they chase this car but not that one?

The Blue Dogs's official caucus Web site answers with rhetorical tail-chasing in which "centrism" is so exalted that it justifies any position the centrist takes by virtue of the label itself.

Centrism is no virtue.  Taxpayers simply can't afford it any longer.  For decades, until 2009 -- after Democrats had secured majorities in both houses of Congress, a hard-left liberal entered the White House, and government profligacy really took off -- centrist politics and institutional collegiality brought America progressively closer to economic and fiscal crisis.  If one political faction supports and another rejects additional spending and programs, compromise always favors some increase in both.  Government spending compounds more relentlessly than simple interest, because budgeting and spending are driven by "baseline projections" rather than real-world conditions.  Government grew in this manner even during two Reagan administrations.

At the height of its membership in 2009, the Blue Dog "conservative" coalition had only four members who scored above 50 (lifetime rating, 100 being perfect) when rated by the American Conservative Union, and only four below 70 (2008 rating, same perfection scale) when rated by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.

The Blue Dog conservative average score, as calculated by ACU, was 29.  Six Blue Dogs had ratings below 10.  How's that for conservatism?

In contrast, The Blue Dogs' liberal average (ADA results) was 81 (rounded), but nine had liberal scores of 90 or more, with one scoring perfectly in 2008 (Loretta Sanchez, CA-47).  Again, how's that for conservatism?

The Blue Dog Coalition's labeling success has come back to bite at least one member, and probably (if I were paying attention to all of them) more.  In Pennsylvania's recent reapportionment, my "Blue Dog fiscal conservative" member of Congress, Tim Holden, was awarded far more Democrats in a reconfigured 17th district.  Holden's ACU and ADA ratings in the above time slices were 40 and 85, respectively.  Holden got Pelosi passes on cap-and-trade and the health care bill to preserve his seat and, it was hoped, her majority.  Despite those votes against, Holden's voting record raised rather than lowered the Democratic House caucus votes-with-party average.  Tim Holden can call himself anything he wishes in his district -- he may even get away with it -- but when he got to Washington, he was a conventional, liberal, tax-and-spend Democrat.  (More on Holden here.)

Despite Holden's actual record, Democrats in Holden's new district turned him out in the primary in favor of a newcomer who ran to Holden's left.  Therein lies a great irony: there was very little room to run on Holden's left other than the perceptual room he created himself by successfully peddling the fiction that he is conservative.  Holden has been dining out for years in a more conservative district on the National Journal's Vote Ratings, which consistently show him to be, as he has put it (each time using current NJ numbers), "the 23rd most conservative Democrat in the House."  Being the 23rd-most conservative Democrat in a Pelosi-led caucus is like being the 23rd-most honest pickpocket in Paris, yet Holden was elected and re-elected ten times.  He won't be missed.  Given its demographics, Holden's new district will send a Democrat to Congress.  Better to have an honest liberal rather than a covert, backbench, underperforming timeserver.  That way, when the spending wheels come off, even uneducated voters will be able to identify the malefactors.

Dan Henninger wrote about the Blue Dogs in 2009:

American politics has arrived at a crossroads.

This struggle over health-care legislation isn't just another battle between the Democratic and Republican parties. It's about which force is going to take the United States forward for the next generation: the public sector or the private sector. If by now you haven't figured out which sector you are in, then you're a Blue Dog Democrat.

The Blue Dogs and other moderates have been sliding to this final dilemma for years. The issue is not whether one is for or against "government."


For centrists in both parties the moment has come to decide which side of the public-private divide they want the U.S. and its future workers to be on. Trying to live in both has brought us, inevitably, to that decision.

For now, concerned Americans should celebrate gridlock and work to elect enough conservative candidates who reject compromise and are able win arguments and votes in the legislature.  America needs problem-solvers, certainly, but, more than anything, the nation needs some principled obstinacy among polite, but determined and responsible elected adults, not more expensive "centrism" from a self-serving political class.

E-mail Jerry Shenk at

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