April 3, 2009 in Column, Opinion

Froma Harrop: Blue Dogs bark up right tree

Froma Harrop

There’s trouble around the Democratic campfire. The party has the White House and solid congressional majorities. But what it doesn’t have is everyone singing the same tune.

Liberals who kept the fires burning during the long Republican reign now fear that moderate Blue Dog Democrats will thwart their much-delayed dreams. Elected from purplish parts of America, the Blue Dogs are fiscal conservatives who regard expensive new programs with a wary eye.

What’s a liberal to do? First, recognize that the Blue Dogs are the reason Democrats have such nice majorities. They are why the dreams are even on the menu. Second, concede that the Reluctant Ones have a point.

Good advice not taken. Activist groups have launched a “Dog the Blue Dogs” campaign to pressure moderate Democrats to back President Obama’s program with a more open heart. Ads are being run in the Dogs’ home states.

Singled out for special attention is Sen. Evan Bayh, Ind. Bayh recently organized a group of 15 centrists queasy over the big numbers in Obama’s budget plans.

In a call to the media last week, the campaign’s sponsors chided the centrist Democrats for airing doubts about the Obama agenda. William McNary of USAction hinted in a pleasing heartland voice that Bayh could be beholden to “powerful special interests.”

Other Blue Dogs, he added, “could become the unwitting accomplices of those who don’t want change.” And he gently noted that Bayh and fellow Blue Dog, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Ark., are up for re-election in 2010.

A reporter asked what options the activists had if the Blue Dogs don’t come around. Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future responded that the groups assume “that if you hear from constituents, you’ll get with the program.”

This is a curious strategy: The semi-conservative parts of the country that elect Blue Dogs are not thickly settled with liberals. Forty-nine House Democrats come from districts that backed John McCain in 2008. They have no reason to relax. As a reality check, the special election in upstate New York to replace Blue Dog Kirsten Gillibrand (now in Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat) remains too close to call.

And Republicans totally understand the Blue Dogs’ vulnerability. House Minority Leader John Boehner called them “lap dogs” for Obama.

These Democrats are dogged if they do and dogged if they don’t. But let’s set aside the politics and look at the policies. Are they right?

This year and next, big deficits are needed to pull the economy out of the ditch. But in the longer term, deficits must come down. The “pay-go” rule, a Blue Dog obsession, is the way to impose discipline. It requires lawmakers to offset the costs of legislation with tax increases or spending cuts.

By the way, these centrists are not Lite Republicans. When Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said, “I want to ask my friends, the Blue Dog Democrats, do you really want all this government?” he truly asked the wrong question.

The Blue Dogs have no ideological objection to government. They support such Obama priorities as health care reform. They just want them paid for.

And Blue Dogs hold undisguised contempt for recent Republican conversions to fiscal rectitude. Ryan’s appeal “to help us defeat this unprecedented taxing, borrowing and spending spree” drew a tart response from Rep. Charlie Melancon, La.

“These statements come from the same individuals who wrote the president a blank check for eight years, driving spending to the highest levels in our country’s history,” said Melancon, a co-chair of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition.

What’s a liberal to do? Be very nice to the Blue Dogs.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for the Providence Journal.

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