Having seen their numbers severely reduced after the 2010 election, Blue Dog Democrats are trying to maintain their influence within the Democratic caucus by backing Blue Dog whip Heath Shuler for House Minority Leader over Nancy Pelosi. "If…she doesn’t step aside, then I will challenge her," Shuler told CNN yesterday. He stands virtually no chance of unseating Pelosi—and has admitted as much—but the mere fact that he’s willing to challenge her is indicative of the current divide within the party. Despite her polarizing image, Pelosi has been one of the Democrats’ few effective leaders, having steered nearly all of Obama’s agenda through the House in the past two years. One can debate whether she’s the best public face for Democrats, but Shuler is a terrible alternative. In fact, he epitomizes much of what is wrong with the party today.
A chiseled ex–football star and devout Southern Baptist from the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina (WNC), Shuler was the prize recruit of Rahm Emanuel’s class of ’06. Despite his conservative stances on guns, abortion, immigration and gay rights, Democratic activists in WNC rallied behind Shuler, who ran as an economic populist and promised to fight for new jobs and better healthcare for his mountain constituents. "The Democratic Party helps those who cannot help themselves," he said. "That’s the Christian that I am."
Instead, Shuler became one of the most outspoken dissidents inside the Democratic Congress, voting against the stimulus, healthcare bill and Consumer Financial Protection Agency. He roomed with conservative Republicans like Tom Coburn and disgraced Nevada Senator John Ensign at the controversial C Street house in DC and became best known in Congress for sponsoring a draconian border security bill. "No Democrat has done quite so much in so short a time to arouse Pelosi’s disdain," Politico reported.
His voting record didn’t sit well with the Democratic activists back home who worked so hard to elect him. I detail this testy relationship in my new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics (pages 208–214). "We’re so disappointed in Shuler," said former Polk County Democratic Party chair Margaret Johnson. "We laugh when we think about all that we did for him." Kathy Sinclair, the former Democratic chair in Buncombe County—the largest in Shuler’s district—was even more blunt. "I’m not sure he is really representing his constituents of Western North Carolina," she told me last spring. "I didn’t vote for him last time, and I won’t vote for him next time."
Unlike some of his Blue Dog counterparts, Shuler survived his re-election bid—based largely on his personal popularity as a hometown football star—and claims he’s voting in sync with his conservative district. Maybe so, but his antagonistic relationship with local Democrats suggests he’d be a poor fit to lead House Democrats, especially as they try to combat the extreme agenda of House Republicans. The last thing John Boehner needs is an ally across the aisle.
Shuler said over and over in his interview Sunday that he wants the Democratic Party to have a "big tent." But the party already has a big tent—that was its principal electoral strategy in ’06 and ’08—and Pelosi has been more than accommodating to the Blue Dogs in her ranks. That, in my view, has been one of the Democrats’ problems.
By refusing to articulate or campaign on a bold legislative agenda, Democratic candidates deflated Democratic activists in 2010. That is one reason so many Democratic candidates lost in the past election. Elevating Shuler to the Democratic leadership would only severely exacerbate that problem.