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.
Moreover, Bai asserts that there’s no historical precedent for a more ideologically cohesive Democratic majority. Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something Democrats can aspire to. Republicans never controlled more than fifty-five seats in the Senate under Reagan or Bush II and were able to get a number of sweeping pieces of conservative legislation passed. Yet Democrats allowed Republicans or a few renegade Democrats to water down or thwart nearly every progressive piece of legislative proposed in the Senate. The difference between the parties has more to do with temperament than geography. Republicans are very skillful at convincing their moderate members from blue states, like Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, to vote with their caucus on most big issues—whether it be through friendly persuasion or outright threats. Democrats show no similar resolve, especially when it comes to fighting Republican filibusters, and usually agree to compromise before the big fights have even begun.
Bai notes that many Democrats, including Dean, once embraced the idea of an ideologically diverse big-tent party. But that doesn’t mean that views on this issue can’t evolve and change. Dean, in fact, had some frank words to say about the legislative blowback that resulted in part from the success of his own fifty-state strategy, as I detail in my new book, Herding Donkeys. I write on pages 215–216:
Despite the continued defections of red-state Democrats in Congress, Dean didn’t question his original electoral strategy. "I’d never back off from the fifty-state strategy," he told me. "If you want to have a majority, you have to be a big tent party." But he’d recently beenponderingthe flaws in the tent’s construction. "Having a big, open tent Democratic Party is great, but not at the cost of getting nothing done," he said."Bipartisanship is wonderful but not at the cost of passing legislation that doesn’t do anything."
The Republicans had become obsessed with ideological purity, losing their majorities and staggering in the wilderness as a consequence, but Democrats, if anything, weren’t ideological enough. Their red state contingent had so blurred what it meant to be a Democrat that the party itself could barely see. A whole crew of Democrats now roamed the halls of Congress—and, increasingly, the corridors of the White House—standing for little else but political expediency. "That’s what makes me nervous about the political process right now," Dean admitted, "because there’s always been a streak in DC of, do what it takes to get elected and if that means abandoning issues, go ahead. And that’s dangerous because it makes any incumbent worthless." He’d recently been thinking that Democrats might be better off with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive majority—the type of arresting admission you rarely hear from an influential member of the ruling party. "If you have a majority of say sixty people in the Senate, but you can’t deliver anything, why not have a majority of fifty-five and not have all this intraparty feuding?" he wondered.
Dean had a favorite saying about political majorities. "If you don’t use it," he said, "you lose it."
Dean also believed that Democrats needed to be able to articulate their core values and stand up for them across the country, which is the exact opposite of what the Blue Dogs—and many Democratic candidates more broadly—did in 2010. My guess is that, in the not too distant future, Democrats will look back on the period from 2008–10 and say, We accomplished a lot. But, given the size of our majorities, we could’ve done so much more.