Political Hay

Blue Dogs in Heat

Democratic moderates fear only their conservative constituents.

By 12.21.09

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On a radio interview aired in Nebraska, Sen. Ben Nelson talked tough. He declared the abortion language in the Senate health care bill was by itself "reason not to vote for cloture" because "the long-standing Hyde rule should not be weakened in any respect." But even if that issue were resolved, there remained "other substantive issues."

Nelson had opposed both the public option and the Medicare expansion. He said he opposed the cost expanding Medicaid would impose on the states. He professed to be against any health care bill that did not lower overall costs. And he claimed he wasn't going to be bullied. Asked if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would get his precious bill passed by Christmas, Nelson quipped, "Are you talking about this Christmas or next Christmas?"

That was last Thursday. By Saturday, Nelson caved and became the 60th vote to rubberstamp Harry Reid's health care bill. What had changed? According to the officially nonpartisan but effectively Democratic-run Congressional Budget Office, the "compromise" raised taxes and spending even more than the original legislation Nelson opposed. It also contains a Nelson-Reid abortion funding deal denounced by nearly all major pro-life leaders as a sham.

But Nelson collected his three pieces of silver. Nebraska will receive a permanent federal subsidy to cover the costs of increased Medicaid eligibility under the bill while all other states will have to start picking up the tab for their share in 2017. "That's what legislation is all about," Reid explained to reporters. "It's compromise."

It is always thus with Senate Democratic centrists like Nelson and their more numerous counterparts in the House Blue Dog Coalition. The Blue Dogs bark loudly, but will heel, roll over, and play dead at the leadership's command in exchange for amounts of federal dollars that resemble doggie treats in the context of major economy-restructuring legislation.

The Blue Dogs protested the $787 billion unfunded stimulus bill. Their efforts did little to change the final price tag, which exceeds $1.2 trillion when interest on the increased debt is factored in. Then they failed to produce even ten votes against it (the eleventh Democratic defection came from a liberal who thought the stimulus package spent too little and cut taxes too much).

Large numbers of Democrats from districts that voted for George W. Bush and John McCain balked at the energy tax contained in their leadership's cap-and-trade bill. But, abetted by eight Republican defectors, Democrat leaders nevertheless were able to produce just enough votes to squeeze cap-and-tax through the House.

In the Senate, three Democrats from competitive states stood up to their party by voting against the $446.8 billion omnibus spending bill. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), up for reelection in 2010 in a historically Republican state, even urged President Barack Obama to veto the spending package. But conveniently, such Democrats do not protest in large enough numbers to affect legislative outcomes.

The only serious Democratic resistance effort we have seen since Obama has been president was the rebellion of Catholic pro-liberals in the House -- the kind of Democrats Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania is supposed to be -- that produced the Stupak amendment.

Whether it is Medicaid money for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) or Ben Nelson, seldom do Democratic moderates deliver for conservatives when it counts most. One has to go all the way back to when the Boll Weevils provided the crucial votes to pass the Reagan economic program to find an instance when right-leaning Democrats fully deserved the opprobrium of the netroots of their day.

Yet as much as they deserve the doghouse, the Blue Dogs have not been totally useless. They remain the Achilles' heel of the Obama-Reid-Pelosi axis and the main reason the Democrats have so little to show for their supermajorities. Without the public option, they have reduced the health care bill to an incoherent mess that will be ruinous if implemented but could still be repaired or repealed.

Honorable exceptions like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) aside, the Republicans haven't exactly covered themselves in glory during this debate either. Their strategy of attacking the bill by amendment may have peeled off fewer Democratic votes for cloture than it produced campaign ads in which red-state Democrats can point to isolated votes against middle-class tax increases, taxpayer funding of abortion, and absurd levels of federal spending even after paving the way for a bill that contains all of the above.

Worse, the GOP's focus on the health care bill's improbable Medicare spending cuts prioritized short-term political advantages -- Republicans relish the opportunity to wave the bloody flag of Medicare cuts as much as Democrats -- above the long-term imperative of controlling entitlement spending. Had the Democrats been serious about expanding Medicare, it may well have proved disastrous.

The important thing for conservatives to remember is that few of the Democratic Blue Dogs are principled. They were simply spooked by tea party events, town hall protests, and their own 2010 poll numbers. The Blue Dogs are motivated mainly by their fear of their constituents, the people the Founding Fathers intended to be their true masters.

That is why whatever the weather in Washington, these congressional canines must always feel the heat back home.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.