No, let sleeping "Blue Dogs" lie

Activists are calling for the heads of conservative congressional Democrats. Wait till George Bush is history, and then decide.

Published July 29, 2008 11:30AM (EDT)

DINOs. Vichy Democrats. Bush Dogs.

Anyone who listens to the regular talk among progressive activists on- and offline is familiar with such terms of opprobrium for Democratic politicians, particularly in Congress, who are alleged to be ideologically unreliable, insufficiently partisan, too cozy with corporations, or subversive of efforts to fight the Bush administration. These terms often involve members of the official congressional Blue Dog Coalition, which houses many party dissidents while exerting starboard-side pressure on the Democratic leadership. But discontent with Democratic incumbents frequently goes deeper.

Such talk reached new levels of intensity last year during futile efforts to cut off funding for the Iraq war, and again just last month when sizable Democratic defections paved the way to reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

And naturally, the unhappiness is leading to revived talk about a systematic effort in the future -- presumably in 2010 -- to intimidate or even defeat selected Democratic members of Congress, preeminently Blue Dogs, through primary challenges.

As DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas said on June 25:

As DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas said on June 25:

2010 is going to be the year we pivot from taking control of our government, to holding out [sic] accountable. Like Al Wynn this year, the corrupt, the tone-deaf, and the reactionary within Democratic ranks will face the possibility of primary battles. The infrastructure we're building will be available for those courageous enough to take on the entrenched elite. But when we have candidates that inspire, and can develop the alternate funding sources to finance them, the combined might of the Pelosis and Hoyers won't be enough to effect change. Just ask Donna Edwards.

Glenn Greenwald has articulated the case for that strategy -- in combination with a generalized determination to make congressional Democrats as a group "pay a price" for perfidy or failure -- quite forcefully.

There are three big problems with such a campaign: defining the targets amid wildly varying estimates of the necessary degrees of Democratic unity and progressivism; mustering the means to carry out primary challenges in territory not always hospitable to the net-roots point of view; and most of all, dealing with a post-Bush political environment in which many of the long-heard complaints about Democratic "timidity" may be far less relevant.

Greenwald seems to think that it's self-evident that "complicity and capitulation" by Democrats are responsible for the extremely low approval ratings of the current Congress, and that the entire Democratic "base" shares his own feelings of betrayal on issues ranging from Iraq and FISA to the confirmation of Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

If Congress' unpopularity (the norm rather than the exception, regardless of party control, over the past two decades) is mostly attributable to Democrats, why then (as Greenwald himself points out in rationalizing immediate efforts to reduce their numbers) are Democrats poised to make significant gains in both houses in November? Such limited polling as exists on perceptions of the two parties in Congress invariably shows higher ratings for Democrats than Republicans. Moreover, the disappointment and frustration of self-identified Democratic voters (the actual party "base," as distinguished from the "activist base," according to most definitions) with Congress' record undoubtedly encompass some recognition of the residual power, via the veto pen and other executive powers, of even the weakest president. And aside from continuing public ambivalence about how, exactly, to end the war in Iraq, there's simply not much evidence that issues like FISA or habeas corpus, much as they should matter to voters, actually do, even in the ranks of the Democratic "base."

So if the "base" is supposed to bring congressional Democrats to heel, who gets to draw the lines separating the essential wheat from the disposable chaff?

It's not as though there's a stable and easily identifiable band of rebellious right-leaning Democrats in Congress who are screwing up everything. According to Congressional Quarterly's (subscription-only) voting analysis, House Democrats achieved the highest level of party unity in history last year, with 92 percent sticking together on party-line votes (as compared with the low of 58 percent back in 1972). Senate Democrats' party-unity rating in 2007 was 87 percent, just below their all-time high of 89 percent (achieved in 1999 and 2001), and far above the levels common in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.

So advocates of intraparty disciplinary methods have to be selective, sometimes very, very selective. In April of last year, the progressive site OpenLeft launched a highly influential campaign to identify, persuade and/or eventually challenge 38 House Democrats dubbed "Bush Dogs." In defining the term, OpenLeft co-founder Matt Stoller said:

Bush Dog Democrats are Democratic members of Congress who enable the right-wing through their support of Bush's policies on core progressive values at key moments.

In this case, "core" and "key" were defined by exactly two House votes: the effort to cut off Iraq war funding and FISA. And that litmus test didn't serve as a very stable way to isolate a hardcore of alleged miscreants: the "Bush Dog" list swelled to 70 after the latest Iraq and FISA votes.

But even if some ill-defined Democratic "base" can somehow find ways to agree on a consensus view of minimal party unity or ideological progressivism, there's a question of means as well as ends. Do proponents of a culling exercise have sufficient resources, intellectual, organizational or financial, to kick ass and take names on the broad scale they often suggest as necessary?

Putting aside as debatable claims that threats of strong national net-roots support for primary challenges have had a big effect on potential targets (e.g., Reps. Jane Harman and Ellen Tauscher of California), there have only been two clear-cut examples of congressional Democratic targets going down to ideologically based primary challenges: Joe Lieberman in 2006 (who nonetheless won reelection after Connecticut Republicans supported his "independent" bid) and Albert Wynn in February of this year. Notably less successful high-profile efforts this year failed to topple Reps. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois in February and Leonard Boswell of Iowa in June. And July's net-roots-backed challenge to Rep. John Barrow of Georgia -- the Bush Dog to top all Bush Dogs -- crashed and burned by better than a 3-to-1 margin.

I don't mention this mixed record to mock the influence of the net roots or other progressive activists, or to doubt the energy of their efforts, but simply to note, as Markos Moulitsas often does, that the ability to affect individual contests depends almost entirely on local conditions. And elements of the "base" in far-flung congressional districts around the country sometimes have different ideas about the quality of their representation, or the realistic options for something better rather than worse, than do distant activists wielding lists. John Barrow's not a unique example; the Democratic base voters in the districts that recently elected "Bush Dogs" in Mississippi and Louisiana in special elections probably aren't going to warm to arguments that they need to risk reversing their historic victories in the name of progressive solidarity.

But even if I'm wrong about everything I've said until now, the biggest and most obvious problem with a vengeful effort to discipline Democrats deemed to have failed to stand up to Bush is that this whole measurement is about to become moot, particularly if Barack Obama wins in November. In an Obama administration, all the arguments about which tactic or strategy congressional Democrats should have used to win or "take a stand" on this or that issue in the Bush era will be relevant only in terms of which Bush policies can be reversed, since we'll have a president and a Democratic congressional majority that's -- for the first time, perhaps, since 1965 -- basically pulling in the same direction.

If intraparty fights break out, would an Obama administration take a detached position on them, or intervene in one way or another? (After all, Obama endorsed Lieberman's primary candidacy in 2006 and also endorsed Barrow this year.) Will post-election challenges to House or Senate leaders (say, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer) emerge? What issues, if any, will represent intraparty flash points? And will a Democratic "big tent" wider than some progressives are comfortable with be an asset or a handicap to a President Obama, who has spoken so often of breaking the mold in Washington but also of overcoming stale partisan debates?

I don't know the answer to these questions, but nor, with all due respect, does Glenn Greenwald. The case for a backward-looking campaign to punish Democrats generally or specifically for their sins in the Bush era makes little sense five months before it mercifully ends. Let's win big in November, keep the Big Tent up, see what the blessed new year brings, and remember that no one in particular can authoritatively speak for "base" or "swing" voters other than, well, voters.

If intraparty tensions persist, there will be plenty of time then to pick up sides and keep, or settle, scores.

By Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and an online columnist for The New Republic.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Democratic Party Fisa George W. Bush Joe Lieberman