Blue Dogs Bark
Meanwhile, the media remain obsessed. As Talking Points Memo's Elana Schor recently noted, press mentions of the Blue Dogs outnumbered mentions of the Progressive Caucus by nearly ten to one between mid-October and mid-January. This despite the Progressive Caucus being larger and having far more members in the leadership.
I've spent the past few months trying to sort out why the Blue Dogs get so much attention. The best I can tell, there are two main reasons. One has to do with the organizational mechanics of the Blue Dog caucus, which is more unified and cohesive than any other in the House. The other has to do with the ongoing Beltway love affair with "fiscal conservatism."
The first-ever House caucus was in many ways the opposite of today's Blue Dogs. Founded in 1959, the liberal Democratic Study Group was created by Congressional liberals who wanted to organize their opposition to the conservative Southerners who chaired the most important committees and routinely foiled liberal legislation, particularly on civil rights and labor. Beginning in the '70s, as the South migrated toward the GOP, Southern Democrats found themselves further from the mainstream of the party and the levers of power, and responded with a caucus of their own, the "boll weevils." After Democrats made large gains in the 1982 midterms, the boll weevils' influence was greatly reduced and the group eventually petered out, replaced in 1995 by the House Blue Dog caucus.
The Blue Dogs' website explains their name thus: "Taken from the South's longtime description of a party loyalist as one who would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the ballot as a Democrat, the 'Blue Dog' moniker was taken by members of The Coalition because their moderate-to-conservative views had been 'choked blue' by their party in the years leading up to the 1994 election."
But like a lot of aspects of the Blue Dog mythology, this doesn't hold up. If Blue Dogs felt choked blue by fellow Democrats' lavish spending, the timing of their founding doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Clinton had just pushed through a budget that reduced the deficit by 12 percent and put it on a glide path to surplus. It seems just as likely that Democrats from conservative districts who survived the bloodbath of 1994 understood that their future electoral success depended on distancing themselves from the Democratic Party.
For most of the Clinton and early Bush years, the Blue Dogs weren't much of a factor. But after the 2006 midterms, the caucus grew dramatically from thirty-seven members to forty-seven, and the Blue Dog PAC became a financial juggernaut, raising more than $2.6 million (lots of it from corporate PACs) for the 2008 cycle.
While the Progressive Caucus is larger and more integrated into the House leadership, the Blue Dogs are arguably more effective. This is partly because of the drawbacks of size: the bigger you are, the harder it is to achieve consensus, and as a result Progressive Caucus members rarely take positions en masse. Blue Dogs, on the other hand, have limited their membership to 25 percent of the House Democratic caucus and take official positions on bills only if they have the support of two-thirds of their members. (In the 110th Congress, that was only six bills, including a corporate average fuel economy standards [CAFE] bill, the war funding accountability bill and the bipartisan FISA compromise.)
This allows the Blue Dogs to operate more like a junior parliamentary coalition partner than the loose federation that is the Progressive Caucus. "They're organized," a progressive Representative's chief of staff told me. "When you're dealing with the Blue Dogs, you know you're dealing with an entity that has a very narrow focus--but that they have a structure that says they can deliver votes, and they know where all their members are going to be." This meant that in the 110th Congress, they could "control outcomes of votes."
Also, she added, the Blue Dogs have more latitude to take on the House leadership because they stand almost entirely outside it. Indeed, part of what makes Blue Dog membership so appealing to new members (aside from branding themselves as "independent" and "moderate" to constituents back home) is that it provides an alternate leadership ladder and support network. The caucus has three co-chairs who serve two-year terms; new leaders cycle through, and relatively junior members like Herseth Sandlin and Shuler can quickly bypass the long seniority slog to a high-profile position.
The caucus is also uncommonly tightknit socially. "I don't want to sound shmaltzy about this," Carney told me, "but there is somewhat of a familiar feeling in the Blue Dogs. We have each other's backs. A large number of the guys I hung out with early on when I first came out on the Hill are my friends and are Dogs as well. It's a very good, comfortable fit for many of us." That could be partly because the caucus is more homogeneous than the party as a whole: more male, white and Southern. In the words of one progressive Democratic House member: "It's a fraternity."
This "fraternity" is ostensibly built around a single issue: fiscal discipline. It's a term that is both more and less than it appears.
Everyone understands that Democrats attempting to represent conservative districts have to convince their constituents that despite the D next to their name, they hear them, understand them and share their concerns and worldview. But to do this they've chosen to invest a tremendous amount of political capital in something that, well, no one cares about. In a recent national poll of priorities, the deficit/debt came in a distant sixth, after regulating the financial industry, ending the war in Iraq and healthcare reform. This could be because the national debt as a percentage of GDP is well within post-World War II norms. A Democratic Congressional candidate who unsuccessfully challenged a Republican incumbent in a conservative district in the South put it to me this way: "Nobody brings up the deficit. Ever."