REP. JOHN TANNER, chairman of the self-styled “Blue Dog Democrats,” has a colorful way of describing the influence he hopes his group of moderate lawmakers will have in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House. “They’ll have to talk to us on the tarmac rather than asking us to jump 30,000 feet to catch the plane after it’s left,” says Tanner in his Tennessee drawl. “If they want our help, I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
What he means is that the new Democratic leaders, dominated by true-blue liberals like Pelosi, won’t really control the House: To get anything done, they’ll need to consult with more moderate Democrats like Tanner and the Blue Dogs. It’s a matter of simple numbers. Come January, there will be 232 Democrats in the House, and 44 of them will be Blue Dogs (maybe more, since a few other Democrats are said to be hoping to join). Take the Blue Dogs away, and Democrats are well short of the 218 votes needed for a majority.
That simple fact has meant that the Blue Dogs are receiving lots of attention these days, more than at any time since their founding, back in 1995. After the Democrats’ cataclysmic defeat in 1994, a group of moderates–the founders included then-representatives Charlie Stenholm of Texas and Billy Tauzin of Louisiana–got together to separate themselves from the old-style, tax-and-spend, interest-group liberals who had led the party to defeat. They called themselves Blue Dogs because–well, there’s some disagreement about that. Their website explains, “Taken from the South’s longtime description of a party loyalist as one who would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the ballot as a Democrat, the ‘Blue Dog’ moniker was taken by members of the coalition because their moderate-to-conservative views had been ‘choked blue’ by their party in the years leading up to the 1994 election.” A more pedestrian explanation is that, early on, the group occasionally met in Tauzin’s office, which featured an eye-catching painting by Louisiana artist George Rodrigue, whose trademark is a quizzical-looking blue dog. One way or another, a name was born.
Now, the Blue Dogs–veteran members like Tanner and fellow Tennessean Jim Cooper, as well as newcomers like former Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler and Brad Ellsworth–are trying to distance themselves from the old-style, tax-and-spend, interest-group liberals who have led their party to victory. And also, by the way, from the big-spending Republicans who led their party to defeat. Although they are generally a little more socially conservative than other Democrats, and a little more cautious about pulling out of Iraq, to hear the Blue Dogs tell it, their big issue, from now through 2008, will be fiscal responsibility.
“Where the Republicans made their fatal mistake was allowing the pay-go rules to lapse,” says Tanner. “They are not an end in themselves, but they do force choices. Once you let them go, it becomes ‘I scratch your back and you scratch mine.'” Tanner is referring to the doctrine that any new tax cuts or spending must be offset by similar cuts in spending. It’s a doctrine Republicans in the House used to believe in–and to which many hope to return. Tanner says he’ll stress the issue of financial accountability in the executive branch, too. A number of federal agencies have, to put it kindly, fallen down on that job, and Tanner says he’ll push for more auditing. “If you can’t tell us what happened to the money we took away from taxpayers involuntarily, then you don’t get it next year,” he says.
It sounds good, but Republicans are cautious. We’ve heard a lot of nice rhetoric coming from the Blue Dogs in recent years, Republicans say, but they sometimes haven’t backed up their words with votes. For example, the Blue Dogs didn’t stand up for the Deficit Reduction Act–which would seem to be their perfect issue–opting instead to side with their party against the GOP. Now, if there is a tight vote, asks a key Republican aide, “Are they going to be more true to what they say their Blue Dog principles are, or are they going to be more true to the leadership?”
The answer to that question will lie in how the Blue Dogs react to being in the majority. The group was born in the minority and has played minority politics during its entire existence. Blue Dogs could cast a protest vote here and there–claiming, for example, that the deficit-reduction measure didn’t go far enough–and proclaim their independence, knowing that, with Republicans in control, their vote would not make the difference between Democratic victory and defeat. Now their votes will matter–a lot.
In the end, wary Republicans believe Speaker Pelosi might be their best ally, forcing moderates to inch away from her sometimes reflexively liberal positions. Certainly the Blue Dogs weren’t encouraged by Pelosi’s decision to support the anti-war John Murtha, a favorite of the left wing, over frontrunner Steny Hoyer in the race for House majority leader.
“I was puzzled by it,” Tanner says. “I hope she’ll be Speaker of the House, and not the Democratic leader.”
Indeed, after the vote–in which 149 Democrats stuck with Hoyer, against the 86 who voted with Pelosi–Republicans saw an opening. “One hundred forty-nine Democrats demonstrated that they are willing to buck Nancy Pelosi,” Republican whip Roy Blunt said after the leadership election. “We’ll work each day to give those Democrats a viable alternative to her liberal, San Francisco agenda.”
It’s a prospect that has to worry Pelosi, who has spent weeks pooh-poohing the notion that she will impose a San Francisco agenda on anyone, especially moderate Democrats. But the message isn’t getting through. A few days after the election, Saturday Night Live–not exactly an arm of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy–began with an actress portraying Pelosi addressing the nation. Republicans had tried to scare people about her “San Francisco values,” Pelosi said, but that simply wasn’t true. Her values are basic American values, she explained, such as the belief that health care should be for all, and that there should be freedom of religion–“whether you’re a Wiccan priestess, a Druid, tantric Buddhist, Servant of Moloch, Lord of Fire, Presbyterian, or a member of the Cult of Kali.” A moment later, an actor portraying a Pelosi staffer dressed in full gay leather S & M gear walked up to her desk. “Dana, about your outfit,” Pelosi said to him. “It’s alright now, but as of January, you might have to go with more of a business look for the office.” “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” the staffer says.
“No, no–it’s fine for now, but, you know, after the transition,” Pelosi tells him.
That one skit summed up everything the Blue Dog Democrats don’t want to be. In the days since the election, they’ve done a good job putting some space between themselves and their new Speaker. But so far, it’s been all talk. Starting in January, we’ll find out if they really mean it.