The object of the “Bush Dog” campaign (OpenLeft has its own logo for it, along with a link enabling readers to “sign up to fight the Bush Dogs”) is initiallly to solicit “profiles” of errant Members, weigh their relative perfidy, publicize their records, and pressure them to mend their ways. There’s no question the campaign is being timed to anticipate a late-September/early-October vote on the FY 2008 supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, with Bush calling for an additional $197 billion unencumbered by any troop withdrawal mandates.
But there’s pretty clearly a broader agenda for the campaign beyond “whipping” future Iraq votes in Congress, as reflected in Stoller’s many hints that some Bush Dogs should face primary challenges next year. After all, Stoller and Chris Bowers left their old haunts at MyDD and set up OpenLeft in no small part because they were convinced that it was time for netrooters to begin to pivot from a strictly partisan to a more ideological perspective, demanding progressive rigor from Democrats and threatening grass-roots retribution against those impeding a “progressive governing majority,” as they see it. Targeting incumbent Democrats who’ve voted, as Stoller puts it, for “capitulation [to Bush] on Iraq” and to “expand Bush’s wiretapping powers” does indeed seem like a good wedge to convince netroots folk furious about both votes to take the next step beyond the united-front effort of 2006 and towards a more ideological definition of what it means to be a Democrat.
The “wedginess” of the campaign, and perhaps it’s most troubling feature, lies in the monniker “Bush Dogs,” which obviously ramps up the rhetoric a notch from previous epiteths for straying party moderates (“conservatives,” “Republican Lite,” etc.). And the two-vote litmus test OpenLeft offers for “BushDogs” ignores pretty vast differences in party fidelity among the group. According to a CQ article on party unity in the first six months of this Congress (which generally found unusually high Democratic unity in the House and in the Senate, as compared to past caucuses and to the GOP opposition), “Bush Dog” Gene Taylor trailed the entire caucus by voting with fellow Dems only 69% of the time. Freshman Members from districts carried by Bush in 2004, such as Melissa Bean of IL (82% unity score), Zach Space of OH (83%) and Gabby Giffords of AZ (87%), strayed far less. And though I don’t have access to CQ’s full study, it’s safe to assume a significant number of the “Bush Dogs” voted with Democrats well over 90% of the time. Granting, of course, that votes on Iraq and FISA were far more important than many others, is the “Bush Dog” label, suggesting slavish submission to the president and the GOP, really justified for most of these people?
The “Bush Dog” list has some pretty interesting names. There’s Ciro Rodriguez of TX, whose narrow-miss 2006 primary challenge to Rep. Henry Cuellar was a national netroots cause, and something of a tune-up for the Lamont-Lieberman primary (a few months later, Rodriguez won a primary in a different district after a court-ordered change in distict lines). And there’s Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of SD and Ben Chandler of KY, whose names are always the first cited by Markos Moulitsas to show netroots willingness to support mildly heterodox Democrats in red districts. Are they all closer to Bush than to the Democratic Party?
The questionable nature of the epithet, and its power to fuel a serious intraparty fight, is intensified when you look at one of the two votes, the Iraq supplemental bill. You may recall that the vote was preceded by an earlier struggle when nearly all House Dems voted for a bill that included a troop withdrawal timetable (the language was watered down in the Senate, and the conference report was vetoed by Bush). The “capitulation” in the final vote was on the question of whether Dems should go to the mats to deny the Pentagon any new money for Iraq and Afghanistan until such time as Bush accepted a withdrawal plan. Fully 86 House Dems voted to “capitulate,” including the number two, three, and four Members of the House Democratic Leadership (Hoyer, Clyburne and Emanuel) along with Jack Murtha, until quite recently the unquestioned leader of the “confrontation caucus” among House antiwar Democrats. These gents were just a FISA vote away from being labeled “Bush Dogs,” and given the focus of the campaign on the upcoming Iraq vote (and Stoller’s insistence, viz, Brian Baird, that failure to “stop the war” is of itself sufficient for anathemization), could still wind up with the dog collar.
If you read through posts by various proponents of the “Bush Dog” campaign at OpenLeft and elsewhere (a Google Blog Search turns up plenty of them,and more every minute), you find quite a few subtle but important distinctions in reasoning, aside from the underlying issue of exactly how far the campaign should be taken.
Some progressives are absolutely convinced, supported by mixed evidence from public opinion surveys, that congressional Democrats’ failure to end the Iraq War and generally rein in Bush is the sole reason for Congress’ low approval ratings, and a dire threat to Democratic prospects in 2008. Since denying all war appropriations is the only way Congress can actually force a troop withdrawal, that’s the only acceptable position (though public support for that strategy is also mixed and murky).
Others supporting the campaign clearly believe that political cowardice, or a misplaced search for bipartisanship, is the only possible rationale for “Bush Dog” behavior, and also want to send a message to the Democratic congressional leadership that maximum confrontation with Bush is no longer optional.
Still others share the Stoller/Bowers hypothesis that it’s time for Democrats to stop thinking of their party as a big tent coalition which tolerates dissent on key issues, and start thinking of it as a vehicle for systematically progressive policy outcomes, today, not just after 2008.
And a few probably go further, agreeing with Stoller’s implicit neo-Lackoffian belief (held by many who think, for example, that Harold Ford would have won in Tennessee last year if he hadn’t loudly opposed gay marriage, endorsed Joe Lieberman, or talked so much about Jesus) that rigorously left-bent progressives perform better than muddle-minded “centrists” in elections everywhere and at every time:
We’re going to be told that we are jeopardizing candidates in swing districts, that we are hurting the possibility of retaining the majority. We’re going to be told we’re bad Democrats. None of that is true, and it is loser talk. There is no such thing as a Republican district, and Democrats only get stronger when we stand confidently for our values.
Unsurprisingly, Dr. Tom Schaller of Whistling Past Dixie fame offered a different, regional slant on the issue at OpenLeft. Noting the high proportion of southern white Democrats on the “Bush Dog” list, he suggests it’s another reason for a Democratic electoral strategy that looks north and west rather than south:
[T]his is one of the painful tradeoffs of trying to be a “national” party. Liberals should keep that in mind the next time somebody spews feels-nice, but strategically empty phrases like “Democrats need to compete everywhere”-a “strategy” that is, in fact, the very absence of strategy. Not all Democrats vote the same way- and there are often very clear voting patterns by region. The South/non-South disparity should also be kept in mind when the inevitable arguments arise as to whether 2008 dollars and other resources should be directed toward trying to defeat or replace Republicans like, say, Randy Kuhl or Ray LaHood, or keeping the seats of Democrats Jim Marshall or Gene Taylor.
Regardless of rationales or underyling beliefs about the ideological implications of electoral strategies, the “Bush Dog” campaign is clearly growing. The key questions are whether this will soon become a netroots-wide crusade, and if so, whether it will signal a fundamental transition from partisanship to ideology in netroots discourse.
In that connection, it’s interesting that Markos Moulitsas has yet to personally weigh in, even though Stoller is cross-posting most of his “Bush Dog” stuff at DailyKos, and a variety of other DKos diarists are picking up on it.
That’s significant because Markos has long been a key voice in favor of the pure partisanship approach to netroots organizing and advocacy. In the past, he’s repeatedly suggested that the only true Sin Against the Holy Ghost for Democrats is to join Bush and his allies in reinforcing Republican attack lines on other Democrats. On the ancillary question of when it’s appropriate to sponsor primary challenges to “centrist” Democrats, he’s adopted the “Blue State” exception to intra-party comity: when it’s clear a given state or district would elect a more left-bent candidate, there’s no risk to partisan standing by “primarying” wayward Dems. That was part of the rationale for the Lamont challenge to Lieberman, and also for netroots-adopted challenges to Albert Wynn and Jane Harman (along with the threat to “primary” Ellen Tauscher).
But depending on how fervent it gets, and where it goes in terms of punishing Democratic dissenters, the “Bush Dog” campaign could force a fundamental reassessment of the partisanship approach, and could even, ironically, produce a split in the progressive netroots itself.