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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Concerning “Bush Dogs”

[NOTE: this is going to be a very long post. Please do click on “Read More” for the whole thing] If you read blogs a lot, you may be aware of a rapidly-growing campaign over the last week, emanating from the OpenLeft site, to identify and in various ways intimidate Democratic House members dubbed “Bush Dogs.” As explained by OpenLeft’s Matt Stoller in his inaugural post on the campaign, “Bush Dogs” (evidently a play on “Blue Dogs”) are House Democrats who voted for both final passage of the Iraq Supplemental Appropriations conference report in late May, and for the FISA reauthorization bill earlier this month. 37 Members meet this definition, though Stoller adds Brian Baird of WA to the list of “Bush Dogs” out of anger at Baird’s recent remarks supporting the Bush “surge” in Iraq.
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.

5 comments on “Concerning “Bush Dogs”

  1. poverty_outlaw on

    The Bush Dog campaign is currently focused on two votes. However, the larger debate has always been between the classic populist (progressive) base of the party and the Democrats in Name Only.
    The conflict was summed up nicely by someone very smart who asked “Does the economy serve the people or do people serve the economy?” In a larger context, the question is “Do individuals matter?” You can see it between those who supported the credit card industry’s bankruptcy bill in the last session and those who did not. You can see it in the recent vote on FISA. The Party originated with angry people who wanted a living wage, safe workplaces, and an opportunity for a better life for their children. This gave rise to labor unions and the Democratic Party which created the New Deal, the Great Society, the middle class and a society which aimed for equal treatment under the law for every citizen. The GOP, with the complicity of DINOs who preferred to forget their obligations to their constituents, has just about succeeded in tearing all that down; but in the process is recreating the poverty and desperation which created the Democratic Party in the first place.
    The Bush Dog campaign is the first organized netroots attempt to grapple with this conflict. If you don’t like it, propose a better way. We’d rather work with you than against you.
    But we will not be ignored or marginalized. Nor will we be impressed with airy generalities like Hillary’s four goals. Been there, done that, and the T-shirt was repossessed.

    Reply
  2. RonK Seattle on

    It’s one of those annoying quirks of preference dynamics, but you can lose support by doing something your potential supporters believe is right, and gain support by doing something they know is wrong.
    People want leaders who will protect them. That means leaders who will (under some fuzzy future circumstances) “pull the trigger”.
    If you oppose pulling the trigger today — in a case where pulling the trigger is unequivocally the wrong move — people might infer you would be one of those who would hesitate pulling the trigger tomorrow, in a case where it’s plausibly the right move.
    And this may even be a rationally optimal inference on their part — in a context of imperfect information where we don’t have an ideal spectrum of test cases today, or an ideal spectrum of leadership exemplars to make inferences about.
    Even where the decision isn’t optimal, it can still be the natural behavior of non-optimal decision-makers in non-optimal individual information environments.
    I know, I know. It’s not fair. Boo frickin’ hoo.

    Reply
  3. James Vega on

    In addition to its immediate effects, the Bush Dog campaign raises profound long-range issues about the nature of the Democratic coalition. One basic problem can be expressed as follows:
    There is a significant group of Democratic voters who — on the one hand — believe most or all of the following:
    1. That the invasion of Iraq was a catastrophic mistake that has substantially worsened Americas position in the struggle against terrorism and profoundly weakened the nation morally, militarily and financially,
    2. That the Bush Administration intentionally distorted the intelligence to justify a pre-existing goal of invading Iraq.
    3. That the decision to ignore all contrary expert opinion regarding various aspects of the Iraq invasion was literally criminal in its reckless irresponsibility.
    4. That in case after case the management of the war in Iraq has suffered from the Bush administration’s endemic cronyism, ignorance, arrogance and corruption.
    5 That in every important respect the attempt to convert Iraq into a stable pro-western free-market democracy has been a complete failure.
    5 That Al Gore would have handled 9/11 and the “war on terror” far better then Bush and that America would in all likelihood be profoundly better off today had he become president in 2000.
    At the same time, however, members of this same group would also agree:
    1.That the danger of nuclear terrorism and the existence of organized training camps for terrorists has created a new situation where America has new legitimate national interests to defend.
    2. That America has a legitimate legal and moral right to take military action against either terrorist training camps or imminent threats of nuclear terrorism. If the ability to effectively exercise this right actually does require the permanent stationing of U.S. forces in the Middle East, then it is legitimate for the US to do so.
    3. That the standards of legality America upholds when it responds to genuine terrorist threats needs to be sensibly balanced against the scope and immediacy of the threat to human life. In the extreme case of deterring an imminent act of nuclear terrorism virtually no legal limitations would reasonably apply.
    Although this particular combination of opinions does not fit into either a consistently conservative or consistently progressive framework, it is a conceptually coherent view that is actually quite prevalent in several demographically important and socially heterogeneous groups – (1) “common sense” rural and blue collar voters (2) “practical” businessmen and professionals and (3) Men and women with experience in the military.
    In common speech this viewpoint is reflected in statements like the following:
    “We got the absolute right to defend ourselves against attack, but Bush has screwed it all up”
    “We made a big mess over there, but now the problem is to figure out what we should do next.
    “I’d like to throw the Republicans out next year, but the Democrat has to convince me he or she can do a better job.
    A fundamental and difficult long-term question that the Bush Dog campaign raises is whether people with this heterodox set of views – disgusted with the Republicans and the Iraq war but insistent on a firm response to terrorism – can be or should be considered a legitimate part of the democratic coalition. If they are, then the future choice of litmus test votes that distinguish good Democrats from Republicans will have to be carefully considered to leave room for voters with this perspective. If on the other hand these voters (and the politicians who represent their views) are to be considered “Bush Dogs” and not properly part of the Democratic coalition, then the demographic electoral math for the Democrats suddenly becomes substantially worse. In some particular districts public opinion data may indicate that a majority holds sufficiently firm and consistent liberal-progressive opinions on foreign affairs to allow an uncompromising progressive to win office. But in many other cases, voters with views like those outlined above will hold the balance of power and a Democratic candidate who does not attempt to represent their outlook will face profound difficulties getting elected.
    Many Democrats who oppose the Iraq war as a matter of principle will reject the idea that the Democratic coalition must try to include people with views such as those above regardless of any adverse electoral consequences their exclusion might have. Others will argue that such negative consequences do not really exist.
    Empirical public opinion data should be the ultimate arbiter of questions of the latter kind. But right now the most important matter is simply to insure that this long-term issue is seriously and explicitly debated. In the absence of such debate, long-term decisions about the future of the Democratic coalition will be made essentially by default — as an unconscious by-product of the particular series of litmus test votes that happen to be selected in the coming months, rather then by any conscious process of deliberation.

    Reply
  4. daveh on

    I read your entire post but it was something in the eighth paragraph that really caught my attention.
    You said, “…(though public support for that strategy is also mixed and murky).”
    And I find myself wondering why it is mixed and murky. My big thing, the thing that really gets me riled up, is the lack of effective messaging from the Democrats. Why are they so bad at telling the public what they believe?
    Could it be that Republican accusations are true that Democrats don’t stand for anything or don’t have any core values?
    One thing that can be said about a a fundamentalist christian republican representative is that he or she will never vote for anything that even smells like it might make abortions easier to have.
    But I often find myself wondering if I can find such certainty in supposed opponents of the war. How can you dislike the war, whether how it was begun or how the postwar situation has been conducted, and continue to vote to give money for the occupation?
    I accept there are good arguments against a precipitous withdrawal. But the president has already told us he will not withdraw while he is in office. So even if you would prefer to withdraw slowly, it is not going to happen. Hence you must take a stand. Withdrawal now or later. Which will it be? Take a stand, damn it, and show me what you value.
    On this basis I think the OpenLeft campaign is justifiable and necessary. Leadership is rare amongst politicians. More often than not they merely respond to leadership the people display. The smart pols sense the shift in winds and get out in front early. That is how it’s always been. And, to me, the OpenLeft campaign is nothing more than two citizens doing a better job of convincing their fellow citizens of something. If the targeted Democrats were better at convincing their fellow citizens, then they’d have nothing to worry about. Right?
    OpenLeft is just representative democracy in action. Representatives who fail to do what their party was collectively elected to do are just representative democracy failing.
    How can one conclude any different?

    Reply
  5. John Raymond on

    Thank you for your judicious and full portrayal and critique of the Bush Dog campaign. I agree with you that the name is unfortunate and unfair. I think the campaign itself is useful in bringing out the specifics of the political situation and voting record of each of these members of Congress, however. This can only help to create a more nuanced approach to them (which the name unfortunately contradicts). Though you see Iraq as central to the campaign, it may be more central than you portray. One of the central points of the Open Left posts is that there are very few congressional districts where the majority of people support the continuation of the war (and those districts are held by Republicans), and thus those who vote for continued funding, allegedly voting their district, are not doing so. There is concern too, as you note, that Democrats are not doing themselves a favor electorally by voting for war funding. Thus, there is a pragmatic and partisan element to it as well as an ideological one. That said, a large part of the ideological thrust of Open Left, particularly of Matt Stoller, is to move beyond the inherited features of the Cold War/military industrial complex. It does stem from “ideological” goals that transcend partisanship.
    There is always going to be a tension (and overlap) between partisanship and ideology, or between Democrats and progressivism. I would hope that the ideological orientation of Open Left and the partisan orientation of Daily Kos (or at least Markos Moulitsas) would be seen as complementary, not antagonistic–that is, as two necessary parts of the puzzle. The content of the Bush Dog campaign is in line with that, but the name is not.
    One last point: The partisan approach is largely concerned with winning elections/gaining power, the ideological approach largely with governing/what you do once you have power. The shift of some from a partisan stance to an ideological one is part of the “natural history” of our times, as Democrats take Congress and then the presidency. The partisan stance was largely concerned with Democrats regaining their voice and fighting spirit as Democrats and winning elections. The ideological thrust goes beyond that–building upon it and in reaction to the limitations that being in power exposes–to preparing the ground for the necessary work of changing the dominance of deeply entrenched right-wing ideology and moving the political spectrum toward the progressive left. If those approaches could be complementary, it would be a valuable step forward. Your post is an important contribution to that happening. I would hope that, under the general rubric of response to posts that Open Left allows, that this could be cross-posted at Open Left and even Daily Kos, where it would reach a wider audience.

    Reply

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