Did the 2010 election repudiate the political and ideological strategy pursued by conservative Blue Dog Democrats or validate it? That topic is currently a point of heated debate within the Democratic Party, as recriminations fly in the wake of Tuesday’s electoral "shellacking."
In his New York Times column today, Matt Bai defends the Blue Dogs, echoing the argument made by the centrist Democratic group Third Way before the election. Both Bai and Third Way take issue with a New York Times op-ed I wrote before the election, "Boot the Blue Dogs," which argued that Democrats would be better off with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive majority.
I wasn’t arguing that every Blue Dog be purged from the party, nor that Democrats would benefit from losing sixty seats in the House, but rather that a handful of the loudest and staunchest apostate Democrats, who voted against nearly every one of Barack Obama’s signature priorities, were doing more harm than good. They brought the party nothing in terms of legislative votes and only undermined the broader Democratic message and brand. Interestingly enough, these Democrats, like Bobby Bright of Alabama and Walt Minnick of Idaho, seemed to believe that if they just voted against the president frequently enough, they’d be able to differentiate themselves from the national Democratic Party and retain their seats. But that didn’t happen—the Blue Dog coalition was slashed in half on Election Day. So while the election was certainly not a validation of liberalism, it wasn’t an endorsement of Blue Dog–ism either. Obama could have done everything the Blue Dogs wanted and still Republicans would have called him a socialist and voters would have punished the party in power for a bad economy. And the Democratic base would have likely stayed home in even larger numbers as a result.
Bai also takes issue with the idea that Democrats paid a price for their political timidity. "The theory here, embraced by a lot of the most prominent liberal bloggers and activists, is that centrist Democrats doomed the party when they blocked liberals in Congress from making good on President Obama’s promise of bold change," he writes. "Specifically, they refused to adopt a more populist stance toward business and opposed greater stimulus spending and a government-run health care plan. As a result, the thinking goes, frustrated voters rejected the party for its timidity." But polls showed that the healthcare bill would have been more popular—and easier to understand—had it included a public insurance option, since a majority of Americans wanted a structural check on the insurance industry in the legislation. And John Judis of The New Republic makes a very compelling case that Obama’s aversion to populism severely weakened his political standing.