Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mystery of the Blue Dog Dem mystique

Cameron Joseph's report A Blue Dog Bloodbath? National Journal 10/29/2010 raises the major problem with the standard conventional wisdom about the Blue Dog Democrats. He reports:

The Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally moderate to conservative House Democrats from mostly rural areas, has grown in the last four years from 34 to 54 members. Those gains may soon be reversed. According to the Cook Political Report, 34 of them are in races rated as toss-ups or than lean Republican heading into next week’s elections. ...

Obama's average share of the vote in Blue Dog-held districts was 48.5 percent. Of the 54 Blue Dogs, 33 hail from districts that backed John McCain. While 3 in 5 Blue Dogs are at particular risk, just 1 in 5 in the rest of the Democratic coalition are as vulnerable. [my emphasis]
On what do the Blue Dogs tend to blame their predicament?

Blue Dog members past and present blame Democratic leaders and the difficult districts they hold for their likely losses.

"The Blue Dogs got to 54 because they won in marginal districts," said former Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas, a Blue Dog co-founder. "When the majority got as large as it did, [party leaders] pushed the agenda in Congress further to the left, further than a person in a swing district could vote for and get reelected."

Retiring Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., another Blue Dog co-founder, agreed. "The Democrats followed an agenda that was out of step with what people wanted," he said. "They wanted us concentrating on the economy, ending the war, and the debt, and the first thing out of the box was climate change. That started a disconnect between the Democratic Congress and the American people." [my emphasis]
If we unpack that a bit, the first thing that occurs to me is that Tanner complains that for the White House, "the first thing out of the box was climate change." What the [Cheney]? Yeah, I guess it was. Unless you count all the other stuff that took priority, like the stimulus package, health care reform, and escalating the war in Afghanistan. That sounds like some FOX News propaganda line.

And to me, it's just a bad joke when some conservative talks about how much people are worried about the national debt and deficits. Most people don't give a flying flip about either, as polls consistently confirm. Since both parties officially claim deficits are a bad thing, it's not surprising that general polls show people considering that a problem, but a very low-priority problem. In reality, Republicans ignore the debt altogether except when they're opposing a Democratic bill or trying to phase out Social Security and Medicare. When they are in power, giving big tax cuts to the wealthiest is their top domestic priority, the deficit be damned.

Dick Cheney voiced the actual Republican position when he said, "deficits don't matter." Sadly, about the only politicians and voters that actually seem to care about the deficit are Democrats. And this is a big problem. Not the deficit, the fact that Democrats worry about it.

The Blue Dog narrative is a firmly embedded piece of conventional wisdom: politics works on a horizontal scale from left to right. To win an election in American winner-take-all districts (which essentially force a two-party system to operate), a candidate has to win enough of "the middle" to get a majority. If they slide too much to the right or (especially!) to the left, they lose that sacred middle.

This belief is a key piece of the High Broderist faith.

Congressman Jim Matheson (D-Utah) offers another piece of conventional wisdom about the Blue Dogs:

Matheson says that despite electoral dynamics, the Blue Dogs think and vote the way much of America wants them to. "We've always been a bridge away from the polarizing dynamics of Congress," he said. "The Blue Dogs represent most of America in terms of being the more pragmatic people in terms of trying to get things done."

Tanner held out some hope that in a more closely divided Congress, whichever party is in power will have to work with moderates to get anything passed, even if there are fewer moderates than in the past. "If anybody is going to be successful with the gavel," he said, "they will have to forge some sort of consensus that will naturally include the handful of moderate Republicans left and the Blue Dogs." [my emphasis]
But wait. If the Blue Dogs "think and vote the way much of America wants them to", why are they in such trouble at the polls this year? If the voters on the average have become more conservative, shouldn't the Blue Dogs be getting some benefit from this? After all, they've been showing their independence from the Marxist Kenyan revolutionary President, haven't they?

This is part of the problem of the whole conventional wisdom on Blue Dogs. One answer to those questions is simply that they are in Congressional districts that were apportioned by the state legislatures in such a way that they have a close match between regular Democratic voters and regular Republican voters. Pretty much by definition, any election in those districts is likely to be competitive.

But given the figures cited above, it's hard to see how the Blue Dog Dems have benefited very much from their strategy of showing how often they oppose their own Party and distancing themselves from the Democratic President, even facilitating and contributing to the Republican criticisms against him. An example is the silly remark by Congressman John Tanner that in Obama's Administration "the first thing out of the box was climate change."

I'll suggest a different way to understand the position of the Blue Dogs. I'll ignore for the moment the commercial and business opportunities that can come from being a Blue Dog Democratic Member of Congress.

Linguist George Lakoff is right in a key part of his argument about Democratic messaging. Most voters don't vote primarily on the basis of analyzing individual policies in detail. They identify instead with parties and candidates based on how they perceive the candidates to line up with their values, whether or not the candidates and their actual parties genuinely represent those values. In Lakoff's description, there is no middle political position in the ideological way our Pod Pundits understand it. There are voters who line up consistently with Democratic values, other who line up consistently with Democratic values, and others who are "independents" in their voting because they have values that are enough in conflict that they don't have a longer-term tribal adherence to one Party or the other.

Those voters aren't going to be measuring the candidates on the basis of their rankings in the rating schemes of liberal and conservative groups. They are going to be swayed by candidates who convince them that he or she better represents their values. The two parties set the broad framework for what voters understand are the competing sets of values at play. If Blue Dog Democrats promote narratives that reinforce the Republican message against the Democrats, their only making the electoral hill they have to climb that much steeper. "I don't like the side I'm on" doesn't strike me as nearly as strong as message as, say, "My Republican opponent wants to keep sick children from going to the doctor!"

It seems to me that Democrats elected in highly competitive districts would be better advised to work to build the Democratic Party brand in their districts, and their own personal brands along with it. As Joseph says, "Obama's average share of the vote in Blue Dog-held districts was 48.5 percent. Of the 54 Blue Dogs, 33 hail from districts that backed John McCain." If I can still handle basic arithmetic, that means 22 of the Blue Dogs in question come from districts in which Obama won a majority in 2008. Those numbers suggest something pretty obvious: that even the Kenyan Marxist Muslim (by Limbaugh and Beck standards) at the head of the Democratic Party was competitive in most of those districts.

The Democratic Party nationally also has to worry about its own brand image. Obama paid far, far more deference to the Blue Dog obstructionists aligning themselves with Republicans than he did to House and Senate progressives these last two years. As a result, he restricted his own accomplishments significantly and left many of his base voters frustrated (the default condition for loyal Democrats in any case) and disappointed, even angry.

Yet the official Democratic Party campaign organizations give more attention and financial resources to these Blue Dogs who help to delegitimize their own Party than to progressive like Raúl Grijalva in Arizona who are hardliners in supporting the official Party agenda.

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