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Two-and-a-half cheers for House Blue Dogs

We Democrats recruited them, cheered them on, encouraged them to hold to the center and even the right when they ran, defended the need to have moderates and even conservatives in our party — all with the goal of winning back a majority of the House and Senate so that we could, in fact, enact “change we can believe in.”

Some of them didn’t want to run because these were basically Republican-leaning and mostly conservative districts, most of them in the South, some of them in the Deep South, where, as recently as 10 years ago, Democrats had virtually given up on ever being competitive, much less winning House seats.

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But they ran — and won — some as far back as 1998 and 2000, and then most recently in 2006, when the Democrats took back the House and Senate, and more in 2008. And we Democrats cheered — grateful that we had moderate Democrats who could win, Democrats who were progressive on the core social issues of the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt but were more conservative on fiscal and certain cultural issues, reflecting their districts.

Today they call themselves Blue Dogs. That expression is a mutation from the phrase “yellow dog Democrat,” for years a description of Southern Democrats (when there were many such persons, a very long time ago) who were so loyal they would vote for a “yellow dog” if it ran as a Democrat. After the 1994 Gingrich-led takeover of the Congress by the Republicans, about 20 moderate-to-conservatives House members who had survived the deluge got together and called themselves “Blue Dogs” — yellow dogs who had been “choked blue” by the national Democratic Party’s overly liberal orientation.

But oh, how memories are short. Now, increasingly, the Blue Dogs are the subject of vitriolic criticism on the liberal blogosphere — the very same people who were so happy when the Democrats retook the Senate and House in 2006, thanks to these same Blue Dogs.

A typical put-down of the Blue Dogs from some of these liberal commentators is that they are mostly Southerners — as if the Democratic Party doesn’t need Southern voters to preserve and expand on an enduring governing majority.

But the fact is, that is not true. The most recent listing of the House Blue Dog Coalition includes 56 members, 60 percent from outside of the South — including from such dark-blue states as California (seven members), Pennsylvania (four), New York, Ohio and Minnesota, as well as “new blue” states carried by Barack Obama, such as Iowa, North Carolina and Colorado (which Bill Clinton also carried).

Criticism of the Blue Dogs among some liberal talking heads and commentators recently heightened when seven of them resisted the leadership of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, over concerns about several elements of the healthcare bill supported by the House Democratic leadership and the White House.

Full disclosure: I support the three key elements of the president’s and congressional Democrats’ healthcare proposal: mandatory employer insurance, subsidies for the uninsured using higher tax rates for upper-income taxpayers to help pay for it and the public insurance option to increase competitive pressures on the private insurance industry.

But honestly, I am not sure I’m correct about any of these provisions, because it is all very complicated. For example, I worry about the public option — not only its cost but whether it will end up adding to the costs of insurance, even for those employers who are progressive and provide full coverage for their workers.

On timing, I do believe that the Blue Dogs are right that this legislation is too important to be rushed through because of some artificial deadline called the August recess. And I also think that America loses if this is a straight party-line vote — unlike Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and prescription drug benefits, which were enacted by broad bipartisan consensus. And we need the Blue Dogs to reach out to Republican moderates and even some Republican conservatives to find a formula that will lead to significant bipartisan support — even if it means not getting 100 percent of the goals of the current Democratic legislation in one fell swoop.

So while I hope the Blue Dogs ultimately will support a national health insurance plan similar to the one President Obama is supporting, which they haven’t done yet — that is why I withheld one-half of a cheer — I am glad they are putting on the amber light, making us Democrats think a lot more about what might work and, most importantly, helping to maximize the chances of winning at least some Republican support for the ultimate bill.

This legislation is too important and far-reaching in changing a major part of America’s economy and, indeed, our way of life not to work closely with these Blue Dog Democrats and moderate Republicans to try to achieve a broad consensus before enacting a new national health insurance system.


Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2005-06. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America.