Today’s vote on the tax bill in the House of Representatives broke down along party lines: Not a single Democrat crossed the aisle to vote with Republicans. The Senate vote is likely to go the same way. That polarized result made me wonder what happened to a group that used to be famous for straddling the political center: the Blue Dog Democrats, many of whom voted with Republicans back in 2001 to support George W. Bush’s tax plan. To find out what’s happened to the Blue Dogs—and congressional bipartisanship—since then, I talked to The Atlantic’s congressional expert, Russell Berman. He told me what the fate of the Blue Dogs means for this era in American politics.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE POLITICAL CENTER DISAPPEARS
I talked to Atlantic senior associate editor Russell Berman about Blue Dog Democrats and American bipartisanship. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: What is a Blue Dog Democrat?
Russell Berman: A Blue Dog is a centrist Democrat, generally in the House of Representatives. Most of them are fiscally conservative, but they also tend to be more socially conservative. They’re known as the old deficit hawks. Blue Dog Democrats want to lower federal spending—including on programs like Medicare and Medicaid—but raise taxes. That combination, which forms the political center, is what they represent.
They formed in the aftermath of the 1994 midterm elections, a bloodbath for Democrats, in an effort to bring the Democratic Party closer to the center. In 1994, it made sense to call a Blue Dog Democrat a “conservative Democrat,” but now that sounds more and more like a misnomer. The Republican Party has moved to the right, and the Democratic Party has moved to the left. There are very few Blue Dogs left, and they’re not as easily pigeonholed as they might have been when their numbers were bigger.
Caroline: Why are they harder to pin down ideologically?
Russell: Generally speaking, in the last year, Democratic Party unity in the House has been very strong. Even though there are 18 Blue Dogs, none of them voted for the tax bill or the health-care bill. The tax bill has been particularly interesting. The Republicans had talked about appealing to Democrats with this bill, but none of the House Democrats or Senate Democrats who represent states or districts that voted for Trump felt compelled to vote for the bill. When you have a president with approval ratings in the 30s—whether he is a Democrat or a Republican—the opposing party is not going to feel any pressure to side with him. The Republicans also have not really made an effort to do things that would attract Blue Dogs to the bill, or make it hard, politically, for them to vote against it.
Caroline: That strategy is new, right? Back in 2001, 13 Democrats in the House supported the first and largest of the Bush-era tax cuts.
Russell: Exactly, but those were different times. It’s a result of political polarization. You saw very few Republicans vote with Obama during his presidency, and now you’re seeing very few Democrats voting with President Trump. It’s also the nature of congressional districts now, where parties are catering to their base as opposed to catering to the voters in the middle. Because Republicans have governed in a fairly partisan way, just as the Democrats did under President Obama, there hasn’t been much opportunity for the Blue Dogs to develop partnerships with them.
Caroline: Are all Blue Dogs in the South?
Russell: There are some in the West. There used to be a lot of Democrat-held seats that you wouldn’t have expected, given the polarization of today. Not only would you have white Southern Democrats representing states like Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, and Arkansas, which you see very little of today, but there was also a Blue Dog in Mississippi and South Dakota. The Democratic caucus in the House right now is a lot smaller, because many of the Blue Dog Democrats have lost. The overall caucus is a lot more liberal than it was.
Caroline: When did the number of Blue Dogs in Congress start to shrink?
Russell: In the modern era, Blue Dogs peaked at 54 in 2009, when the Democrats had a large majority in the House. Then they got wiped out in successive elections. In 2010, half of the Blue Dog members lost, making up about half of all the Democrats who lost that year. When the Republicans took the majority in 2010, it was in large part because they defeated Blue Dog Democrats who were in increasingly Republican districts. Even though Obama won in 2012, the Blue Dogs did not fare well in that election, either. Now they’re down to just a third of the members they had seven years ago.
Caroline: What are the big factors contributing to that precipitous decline?
Russell: First, gerrymandering. Republican legislatures in states that Blue Dogs represented have made it harder for anyone with a Democratic label to win an election there. Also, Obama was a progressive president, and the Blue Dogs opposed him on a lot of the big bills—the health-care bill, the cap-and-trade bill. But even though they voted against him, that didn’t insulate them. Anyone who was a Democrat was linked to Barack Obama and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Some of these members said they wouldn’t vote for her again as speaker; some members voted against every aspect of the stimulus package; and they still lost. Now, some of those districts that Democrats held back then are districts that Trump won by 30, 40, 50 points.
Caroline: As the Democratic Party tries to win back the white, working-class voters that they lost in the 2016 election, are they likely to turn to Blue Dog Democrats?
Russell: Back in 2006, the Democratic Party deliberately recruited more conservative candidates across the country—Democrats who were anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage. They said, “Be with us on the economic issues.” This was right after Hurricane Katrina, at the nadir of the Iraq War. President Bush was really unpopular. That was the last time the Democrats were out of power and took back power.
The question is, 10 years later, will they take the same path back? And I think the answer is, not entirely. First, we’ve seen again and again that it’s hard to win a primary—in both parties—when you’re in the center. Both parties have also adopted a new strategy where, instead of pursuing the centrist voters, they put all of their efforts into turning out their base. So recently, there have been fewer Blue Dog candidates, and more traditional Democrats, trying to pick up independent and suburban voters who we’ve seen turning away from Republicans and from the president. But in many of these districts, there just aren’t enough liberal voters to elect a liberal Democrat—so they’re going to need to choose more centrist and conservative candidates.
Caroline: That brings us to Doug Jones, who just won as a liberal Democrat in a conservative state. He’s not a Blue Dog Democrat. What should we make of that?
Russell: Doug Jones won for two reasons. First, a surge in African American turnout, which is pretty much essential for any Democrat to win in the South. There are few African American Blue Dogs in Congress, and generally speaking, there isn’t a whole lot of overlap between Blue Dog Democrats and African American voters, because African American voters tend to be more liberal. Jones also won because white Trump supporters stayed home. That is a path Democrats used when Obama was in office. To that extent, it might show that you don’t need to be a Blue Dog to win in the South. But Jones only won by a point and a half, and maybe if he had been a little bit more conservative, he might have won by more.
The question is: How is he going to vote? Based on his campaign, you’d think he’d be a fairly loyal Democrat because he didn’t try to appeal to conservatives on issues. But he didn’t really have to because he was running against an accused pedophile. His next election will be in 2020, when presumably he won’t be running against someone like Roy Moore. He could certainly become a Blue Dog, and it might be helpful for him to identify as one because that is still a name that might attract voters in the South. To stay in the Senate he’s going to have to pick issues that show he’s not an ideologue Democrat.
Caroline: What will it mean if the Blue Dogs die out?
Russell: It would be a signal of the deepening and continually deep polarization in Congress, where everything is a party-line vote. There are some Democrats who are watching what is going on right now and saying, “Have your fun now, vote along party lines. When we get back in there, that’s going to make it easier for us to pass more liberal legislation.” But generally, people are always saying that they want parties to work together, to get more consensus legislation that reflects the will of both Republicans and Democrats. To the extent that the Blue Dogs die out, that is going to reflect less consensus.
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