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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Should Dems Want a Smaller Tent?

No matter what happens in the mid term elections, expect an intensified debate about the future of the Democratic Party in general, and an even more heated discussion about the breadth of the Democratic Tent — more specifically what to do about the ‘Blue Dogs.’
The debate has been going on for a few years. But a re-opening salvo has just been fired by Ari Berman, in his New York Times op-ed “Boot the Blue Dogs.” Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation and author of “Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics,” argues that the Democratic tent has gotten too big, and the time has come to purge the party of conservative Democrats who are obstructing not only the Democratic agenda, but also the party’s ability to grow. He makes a strong case:

With President Obama in office, some notable beneficiaries of the Democrats’ 50-state strategy have been antagonizing the party from within — causing legislative stalemate in Congress, especially in the Senate, and casting doubt on the long-term viability of a Democratic majority. As a result, the activists who were so inspired by Mr. Dean in 2006 and Mr. Obama in 2008 are now feeling buyer’s remorse.
…Democrats would be in better shape, and would accomplish more, with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive caucus. It’s a sentiment that even Mr. Dean now echoes. “Having a big, open-tent Democratic Party is great, but not at the cost of getting nothing done,” he said. Since the passage of health care reform, few major bills have passed the Senate. Although the Democrats have a 59-vote majority, party leaders can barely find the votes for something as benign as extending unemployment benefits.

Berman sees two pivotal benefits of dumping the ‘Blue Dogs’:

…First, it could enable them to devise cleaner pieces of legislation, without blatantly trading pork for votes as they did with the deals that helped sour the public on the health care bill. (As a corollary, the narrative of “Democratic infighting” would also diminish.)
Second, in the Senate, having a majority of 52 rather than 59 or 60 would force Democrats to confront the Republicans’ incessant misuse of the filibuster to require that any piece of legislation garner a minimum of 60 votes to become law. Since President Obama’s election, more than 420 bills have cleared the House but have sat dormant in the Senate. It’s easy to forget that George W. Bush passed his controversial 2003 tax cut legislation with only 50 votes, plus Vice President Dick Cheney’s. Eternal gridlock is not inevitable unless Democrats allow it to be.

Berman adds “Democrats aren’t ideological enough. Their conservative contingent has so blurred what it means to be a Democrat that the party itself can barely find its way.” He does not say exactly how Democrats should get rid of the Blue Dogs, but withholding financial support from them and otherwise disciplining Democratic members of congress who refuse to support the majority agenda are measures that have gained support among Democratic progressives who want to diminish the power of the Blue Dogs.
Single-payer, pro-choice, tax-the-rich, withdraw-from-Afghanistan progressive Democrat that I am, I worry about the effects of a wholesale purge of the Blue Dogs. I think it’s a mistake to stereotype all Blue Dogs as ideologues. Many are, but some are fairly progressive, and merely want to survive in their conservative districts, hoping to lead their constituents forward to a more progressive vision. Some Blue Dogs in marginal districts deserve a little wiggle room.
Use redistricting where possible to reduce Blue Dog numbers, while not cutting the number of Democratic districts, yes. Allocate less Party money to Blue Dogs and give it to needy progressive candidates in close races, sure. Invoke stronger party discipline with respect to committee assignments on those who fail to support the party a standard percentage of the time, of the time, absolutely.
As for conservative Democratic Senators (‘Blue Dogs’ is a term usually reserved for House members), it’s easier to draw a line in the sand. Cloture betrayal, as Ed Kilgore has persuasively argued, should invoke party discipline.
Generally, Dems should use more carrot and stick to sway the Blue Dogs in a progressive direction. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that majority status is so important for getting anything done in congress, that it would be a mistake to embrace a level of rigid ideological purity that denies Dems the speakership, committee chairs and the ability to enact legislation.

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