The Congressional Spectator

Blue Dogs Turn Red

Democrats from conservative districts face a series of uncomfortable votes.

By From the September 2009 issue

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BEFORE CONGRESS ADJOURNED for the summer recess, Republicans stood on the House floor, faced C-SPAN's cameras, and asked one by one: "Where are the jobs?" It was part of a sustained attack against the president's stimulus program, a $787 billion behemoth opposed by every Republican in the chamber, which had failed to meet its targets for job creation and unemployment.

The extended one-minute messages assailing the stimulus reflected growing Republican confidence. To be sure, the party remains in many respects leaderless, rudderless, and diminished in its public standing. But Barack Obama and the Democrats are showing their first real signs of weakness. In a two-party system, the voters have only the Republicans to turn to when disappointed with the Democrats.

Not only is the polling clear that President Obama's policies -- even on winning Democratic issues like health care -- are less popular than he is personally, but congressional Democrats are starting to face the downside of their 2006 and 2008 victories: they now have a lot of territory to defend, including gains in traditionally Republican and conservative congressional districts that will be difficult to maintain.

These Democrats are increasingly facing votes on key pieces of legislation that will force them to choose between their president and their moderate to- conservative constituents. Liberals hope they choose president and party. "If the president of their party goes down in flames on a major bill, and the Republicans can do a war dance on his (political) grave, whom does that hurt?" asks the Guardian's American editor, Michael Tomasky. "It hurts all Democrats, but most of all it hurts the most vulnerable ones-the ones from red or barely-blue states." That is, the centrists.

In other words: Roll over again, Blue Dogs, lest the voters hit your snouts with a rolled-up newspaper. To this advice there is only one reply: Remember Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky? In 1993, this first-term Pennsylvania Democrat spared her president and party an embarrassing defeat on the budget. With numerous defections from Congress's least liberal Democrats, a unified wall of Republicans came close to defeating Bill Clinton's first, tax-raising deficit- reduction plan. Margolies-Mezvinsky cast the deciding vote in the House; Al Gore did the same in the Senate.

Clinton's budget passed. The top marginal income tax rate increased by one-third, the second time it was raised in three years. Drivers were hit with a gasoline tax hike, seniors saw the taxable portion of their Social Security benefits zoom past 80 percent, the middle-class tax cut vanished into the ether of broken campaign promises. A stunning victory for the Democrats and a reminder of how impotent the Republicans had become -- until the next election.

Margolies-Mezvinsky went down in flames in 1994. She was joined by dozens of other Democrats representing districts where raising taxes gets you a free ticket to the private sector rather than a Profile in Courage award. Even some Democrats who voted against the Clinton tax increase found themselves washed out with the tide.

Of course, it wasn't the tax increase alone that doomed the Democrats in Clinton's first midterm elections. Gays in the military, Joycelyn Elders, the administration's abortion advocacy, gun control, midnight basketball, and a series of scandals large and small all contributed. But these liberal political gambits hurt Democrats in marginal districts whether they passed (like the crime bill and assault weapons ban) or didn't even come up for a vote (like the Clinton health care plan).

So far congressional Democrats have been united when it has mattered. In the House, only six of their moderates (plus one liberal) voted against the stimulus. But they are starting to enter the midnight basketball period of votes that really put their most vulnerable members to the test. The first such vote was on the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill, which Republicans accurately branded the "national energy tax."

Here is a tax increase that falls particularly hard on manufacturing and energy-producing states, with what might be called a disparate impact on minorities and working-class voters. It is a broad-based tax, not a levy confined to smokers or the richest 1 percent. And it comes at a staggering cost, weighing in at $161 billion by 2020.

Fully 44 House Democrats voted against the bill, including almost 30 of those who represent districts John McCain carried in 2008. "Put another way," wrote Ronald Brownstein in National Journal, "while 59 percent of the Democrats from districts that McCain carried voted no, just 7 percent of Democrats in Obama-majority districts opposed the White House on the vote."

Cap and trade faces an even more uncertain future in the Senate, where Waxman-Markey has been undermined by criticism from Western Democratic governors like Brian Schweitzer of Montana and, to a lesser extent, Bill Ritter of Colorado. While there are fewer vulnerable Democratic senators, the party's centrists have leverage on important committees and major procedural votes.

That didn't stop Senate Democrats from casting votes likely to enrage gun rights activists, however. In July, the chamber took up a measure by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) that would have allowed concealed-carry permit holders to transport their weapons across state lines. The vote pitted senators from states with more restrictive gun control laws against those hailing from firearms-friendly regions.

Despite a filibuster-proof Democratic supermajority, liberal senators had to mount a filibuster of their own to defeat the Thune amendment. Why? Because red-state Democratic senators defected en masse to vote with the Republicans, including Jim Webb and Mark Warner of Virginia, Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Begich of Alaska. Even Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a liberal from a purple state Obama carried, voted with Thune. The final vote was 58 to 39, just two short of breaking a liberal filibuster.

NO ISSUE WILL FORCE MORE uncomfortable votes for such Democrats than health care reform. Tax increases, deficit spending, risks to private health insurance, cuts in Medicare payments, public funding of abortion: all these red-state red flags will come into play before the debate is over. Perhaps that's why the Blue Dogs are howling louder than ever before.

On the same day that the Democratic-run Congressional Budget Office poured cold water on the idea that the House Democrats' bill would yield federal health care savings, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and 21 other junior Democrats sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a letter opposing a surtax on upper-income earners to pay for a new health care plan. "Especially in a recession," they wrote, "we need to make sure not to kill the goose that will lay the golden eggs of our recovery."

This followed a separate letter to Pelosi from 40 members of the Blue Dog Coalition vowing to oppose any health care bill that increases the deficit, doesn't address their delivery system concerns, and doesn't protect small business. Michael Barone points out that only five Democrats signed both letters, meaning that 57 House Democrats are sweating core provisions of the bill. "Twenty-nine of the 57 letter signers defeated or replaced Republicans in 2006 or 2008," he wrote in the Washington Examiner. "Thirty-three of them represent districts carried by John McCain in 2008." The vast majority of them are among the Democrats most likely to be defeated by Republicans in 2010.

These are just the fiscal concerns represented by health care. Democrats who support their party's position will also run afoul of pro-life activists and many of their own constituents. "These bills would result in federally mandated coverage of abortion by nearly all health plans, federally mandated recruitment of abortionists by local health networks, and nullification of many state abortion laws," said Doug Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee in a statement. "They would also result in federal subsidies for abortion on a massive scale."

Johnson argued that abortion subsidies would be likely unless explicitly prohibited, even if the Hyde Amendment remains in force. He called it a "condition red" alert for pro-life activists and "the largest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade." More than 20 pro-life House Democrats have sent their leadership a letter expressing their opposition to mandatory abortion coverage, though pro-life Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) helped such a bill clear the Senate's health committee.

No matter the outcome of the legislative battles, a series of such damning votes could have the effect of uniting the old conservative coalition -- taxpayers, gun owners, pro-lifers, and national security hawks -- against the new Democrats. It might even be enough to turn some Blue Dog districts red once more.

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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.