Time to Silence the Barking Blue Dogs
by John Russonello, Mon Aug 03, 2009 at 07:18:43 AM EDT
(Cross-posted from Think it Through)
These days, the tail that wags the dog in Congress is colored blue.
The so-called Blue Dog Democrats are not a majority of the House of Representatives. They are not even a majority of the Democrats. But they are tugging so hard on the reins of the majority that they are determining the direction of heath care reform.
Think of the 52 Democrats in the House of Representatives who call themselves Blue Dogs as Darwinian creatures of politics - descendants of a pest called the boll weevil that infested Congress in the 1980's.
Russonello's political dictionary defines a "Blue Dog" as: "a congressional animal that barks incessantly about saving the taxpayers money while quietly carrying water for policies that increase the federal deficit and the national debt."
The most important thing to Blue Dogs - about half of them come from Southern states - is presenting themselves to their local news media and their constituents as fiscal conservatives in order to send the message that they are a different kind of Democrat - code for not too liberal.
The Blue Dogs feed on a special brand of "fiscal conservatism," which claims to spend less of taxpayers' money but in reality merely shifts what the government's money is spent on and who pays. Their ancestors, the Boll Weevils, worked against any spending in the 1980s that was not a weapons system.
They had a large impact on government and our country:
By the end of Ronald Reagan's second term in office in 1988, spending on domestic needs such as health care; child nutrition; economic programs to help create jobs, build housing and educate our children; medical and scientific research; and everything else except entitlements and defense, dropped from 20.1% to 14.8% of the federal budget. Congress, with the boll weevils leading the way, found the money to increase military spending from $158 billion in 1981 to $291 billion in 1988, and spending on the military rose from 23.3% to 27.3% as a proportion of the federal budget. These fiscal conservatives were responsible for the budget deficit increasing from $79 billion to $155 billion during the Reagan years (1981 to 1988).
Today, the Blue Dogs have health care reform by the neck. They intone ominously about their fears of a high price tag on President Obama's plan for comprehensive health care. Then they oppose provisions that will save money for health care consumers and for the federal government. Specifically, they oppose a strong public option because it would be too difficult for private insurance companies to compete against - in other words it would provide quality care at less cost. They are also willing to draw a line in the sand to block health care reform if it includes new taxes on businesses or millionaires.
They dubbed President Obama's stimulus package as "too costly," but gave President Bush an open check book to wage war in Iraq. Their reasoning seems to be that many of them came from traditionally Republican districts, so they need to act like Republicans.
If the President loses meaningful health care reform because of the Blue Dogs, he has his chief of staff to blame. Many of the current Blue Dogs were recruited by Rahm Emanuel when he served as chairman of the House Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He believes they are the key to the Democrats holding the majority in the House because only the pro-insurance company, pro-millionaire type of Democrat can get elected in these districts.
This type of thinking is part of the reason why people tell us in focus groups that it doesn't matter who wins elections, because "they are all the same in Washington." Voters legitimately ask: why should we work for the Democrats to win a majority in Congress if they are not willing to make real changes from what the Republicans offered?
Nothing will test this assumption more powerfully than the outcome of health care reform.
John Russonello is a partner with Belden Russonello & Stewart:Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog "Think it Through."