…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Progressives Are in the Majority But Blue Dogs Are in the Driver’s Seat
Categories: Commentary, Healthcare

by Meg White

What if the largest congressional caucus in the Democratic Party decided to turn against the president? Could he get the job done?

“Those dirty Blue Dogs,” you’re probably thinking. “First they mucked up the stimulus, now they’re going to take down healthcare with their indiscriminate snipping?!”

Well, you’re wrong on one important point. With all the media coverage about the 49-member caucus of conservative Democrats, you’d assume the Blue Dog Coalition is the major voting bloc other than party affiliation. Not by a long shot.

In fact, the 80-member Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) is not only larger, but technically it’s more powerful (at least in the House). Members of the CPC hold the chairmanship position for 11 of the 20 standing House committees, and its members comprise about one-third of the House Democratic Caucus. Furthermore, the CPC has a longer history than the Blue Dogs, having been established in 1991 by then-Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

These are facts that really freak out the Freepers. This Free Republic article states that the CPC’s supposed power means that “these organizations and their members quite literally comprise a Socialist Red Army within the very contours of the House of Representatives.”

Yes, quite literally; I’m sure.

But the Freepers seem to be the only ones even aware of the CPC’s massive membership in the House, and that includes BuzzFlash. I was shocked by an e-mail I received from the Congressional Progressive Caucus this morning. My disbelief had nothing to do with the subject at hand, which was pushing for a public element to the president’s healthcare proposal. It was this statement that got me (emphasis mine):

As the largest caucus within the Democratic Party, we look forward to working with our colleagues to develop comprehensive legislation that allows all Americans to choose the health care plan that’s right for them and their families.

The largest caucus in the Democratic Party? Really? How is it that the largest caucus in the party can’t seem to get the political time of day?

I wanted to confirm the statement was accurate, but had trouble doing so. The communications department at the Democratic National Committee did not answer my questions by deadline. Bill Goold, the policy director for the CPC would only say that the caucus is the “largest sub-group within the House Democratic Caucus.” Goold told me via e-mail that he didn’t know of any caucus in the party bigger than the CPC, and that he doubted the existence of one.

(The CPC counts two senators in its membership: Sanders and Tom Udall of New Mexico.)

Yet, Blue Dog fever sure is catching. I asked Goold why that might be the case, but he didn’t have a comment for me.

Part of it is media coverage. This morning, my Google news search for “blue dog coalition” yielded 352 results, just about twice as many as I found when searching for “congressional progressive caucus.” Googling is a far cry from real scientific research, however, so I was thankful for Elana Schor’s study at Talking Points Memo. Schor did some interesting research published just before Inauguration Day this year, and the results were staggering. She found that, in the preceding 90 days, the Blue Dog Coalition was “mentioned 933 times in national press coverage according to Lexis-Nexis. The progressives were cited just 99 times.”

Maybe it’s because the group does little outreach and has relatively poor press relations. Though BuzzFlash is a news Web site that explicitly describes itself as progressive, we have had a surprisingly hard time getting some of the more skittish members of the caucus to talk to us (though that doesn’t include some Progressive Caucus friends of ours such as Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and CPC founder Sanders).

BuzzFlash’s ability to get our telephone calls returned aside, comparing the press outreach of the Blue Dogs with the progressives reveals an interesting difference. The Blue Dogs have a phone number on their press releases and instead of the brush off of a communications strategy represented by the stark e-mail form on the CPC site, they have a “contact us” form that includes an e-mail for their communications director. The even have a co-chair for communications in Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-LA). I can’t even tell if the CPC has a communications director.

But just having press contacts is half the battle. Journalists love conflict, especially when it’s slightly cannibalistic. Insurrection from inside the ranks makes for a much more interesting story, and Americans love reading about middle-of-the-road iconoclasts. If these are the characteristics for newsworthiness, Blue Dogs fit the bill.

Perhaps it’s a visual thing. Americans love dogs almost as much as we love conflict. Seriously though, the Blue Dogs do have a logo, albeit an unofficial one. Though the mascot itself looks something like a bizarro Clifford the Dog, a derivative mascot is better than no mascot. I’d hate to say this whole thing is about marketing, but this is the United States, where consumerism beats terrorism.

Or maybe it’s more of a question of ideological positioning. Progressives are in something of a holding pattern right now, adopting a wait-and-see approach on some of the new administration’s more contentious positions, such as the war in Iraq and civil liberties. Some are unwilling to protest loudly, for fear they might derail President Obama’s entire agenda. So, because progressives aren’t kicking and screaming, they also aren’t getting the coverage that some of the more vocally disgruntled members of the Democratic Party are.

Perhaps the progressive agenda suffers when the CPC allows too much dissent among its own ranks. For example, the e-mail I received this morning hinted at some disagreement within the caucus over healthcare. The e-mail did not communicate in a united voice, instead centering around a joint statement issued by the CPC’s co-chairs reiterating the fact that “a majority of the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus will oppose any legislation that does not include a robust public option that is open to all Americans” (emphasis mine).

What exactly was meant by this sentence is unclear to me. What progressive lawmaker would object to a public plan? Or are there those in the CPC (as is the case for many BuzzFlash readers) who are frustrated with single-payer being taken off the table? Either way, if CPC can’t even agree on the need for a public option for healthcare coverage, whither the progressive agenda?

Conventional wisdom is that the Blue Dogs get more attention because they get more done. However, their reputation for across-the-aisle consensus building may be unearned, according to Schor:

On the issue of fiscal responsibility — the core mission of the Blue Dogs, something that most liberals can get behind — the Dogs have had little success.

Remember when the Blue Dogs threatened to hold up the bill exempting middle-class taxpayers from the AMT unless its cost was offset in the budget? Senate opposition killed that effort.

Remember when the Blue Dogs chose to take a stand on offsetting the cost of veterans’ education benefits? Democratic leaders got around that by tweaking the timeline for the bill. Blue Dogs voted against it, but the veterans’ program ultimately passed.

And in 2007, the offer of $4 billion in emergency (read: not paid for) disaster aid for farmers helped get Blue Dogs on board with a massive bill to fund the Iraq war. Not surprisingly, many of the Blue Dogs hail from southern and farm states and are constantly facing tough re-election fights, making their ability to bring home the bacon even more crucial.

Now that Democrats’ majority is expanded this year, here’s hoping that the Progressives challenge the Blue Dogs for dominance — or at least that the latter group sticks to budget-hawk moves that actually pay off.

So much for Schor’s hopes back in January. The fact remains that progressive politicians hold a great deal of power in the U.S. House of Representatives. The congressional majority is decidedly blue and the president is a Democrat.

Maybe progressives are used to being ignored. Perhaps we’re addicted to our status as the perpetual underdog. But the first step to ending this co-dependent relationship is recognizing the problem and reaching out for help. I just hope the CPC knows that the progressive community is there for them, whenever they should decide to act in concert upon their convictions.

After all, if the Congressional Progressive Caucus were to disappear, whom could the Freepers fear?


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com

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