By Ryan Cooper
With a seriously unpopular Republican president and congressional Republicans desperately attempting to pass an even more unpopular health-care bill only to fall flat on their faces, Democrats are anticipating big pickups in the 2018 midterms. And to increase their odds, they're trying to revive a group once left for dead: The conservative Blue Dog Democrats. Nearly wiped out in the 2010 and 2014 Republican victories, the few remaining members of this caucus are working closely with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to recruit and fundraise for 2018 candidates.
These people are the absolute last ones the Democrats need. Not only have the tectonic plates of politics fundamentally shifted from 2008, when the Blue Dogs peaked, the caucus' ideology is bad and political poison.
First and most importantly, Blue Dogism — essentially, being Republican Lite — is an odious ideology. The caucus has its roots in the South, where its members are descended from the last few Dixiecrats who did not eventually switch parties in outrage over Democratic President Lyndon Johnson passing civil rights legislation. Today they are generally focused on austerity, a social conservatism more mild than what Republicans espouse, and a fetish for bipartisanship for its own sake. Witness this 2014 ad for John Barrow, where he boasts about voting with Republicans most of the time and for $100 billion in spending cuts:
Blue Dogs and their ideological fellow travelers were a major force behind monstrous (and deeply racist) welfare reform in 1996, financial deregulation, the war on drugs and crime, and sundry other neoliberal disasters. More recently, they successfully demanded ObamaCare be whittled down into a worse and more unpopular form, and most importantly, helped keep the Obama economic stimulus package far smaller than it should have been.
This leads to the second problem: Blue Dogism is a tremendous strategic liability for the Democrats. It may still be possible to win a race or two with a Blue Dog candidate. But their knee-jerk fiscal conservatism during a huge recession was politically catastrophic for the party as a whole (in addition to being stunningly economically illiterate). With Democrats in power during an election when unemployment was 10 percent, they were wiped out en masse in the 2010 midterms — and the Blue Dogs were most of the victims.
Losing half their caucus at a stroke — obviously because of the economic crisis — did not dent Blue Dog enthusiasm for more austerity in the slightest. In September 2011, with unemployment at 9 percent, Blue Dog Rep. Heath Shuler was still demanding more austerity, citing his business experience, right up until he lost his seat the next year. Barrow lost his in 2014.
All those losses are representative of a general political trend: the ideological sorting of the parties, and the collapse of their cross-ideological wings. There used to be many liberal Republicans, and many conservative Democrats, but they have mostly vanished as parliamentary-style discipline has taken hold. This has gone much further among Republicans, but conservative Democrats are also swimming against a strong current. These days, most conservatives just vote Republican, and most liberals just vote Democrat. As Jon Ossoff's loss in Georgia shows, it's dramatically harder than it was 10 years ago to win as a bland conservative-lite Democrat.
Finally, there's the issue of persuasion. The DCCC believes that winning seats is "more important than any Democratic purity test for potential candidates," Bloomberg reports. Given the extreme headwinds any attempt to revive Blue Dogism will face, this rhetoric is cover for the fact that the Wall Street and medical industry lickspittles in key positions at the DCCC would like lots of Blue Dogs in Congress, both to keep out leftist candidates and to provide cover for failing to pass policy that base voters actually want — like Medicare for all. A Gallup poll finds that 58 percent of Americans and 73 percent of Democratic voters favor replacing ObamaCare with a federal program to provide universal health insurance. A poll from Pew asking specifically about Medicare for all finds that support among Democrats has grown from 33 percent to 52 percent in just three years.
In other words, people's attitudes about policy are not cast in stone — the activist campaign for single-payer is paying off. Given the manifest failure of Blue Dogism in every realm of policy, it's easily possible that a sustained argument for things like Medicare for all could change enough minds to make it actually happen and finally get everyone covered, including the 28 million people left uninsured by ObamaCare. Indeed, it may actually be easier to win upper-middle class voters with such an agenda.
But to do so, Democrats will have to stop trying to copy-paste the past and start reckoning with how they lost control of virtually every level of government.
Blue Dogs are not the answer.
Originally appeared at Commondreams.org
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.