Blue dogs hunt

Politics | A conservative Democratic coalition has a provocative agenda for changing politics-as-usual, but will the group's bite be as loud as its bark?

Issue: "Faith-based campaigning," Jan. 27, 2007

Tom Johnson, even at 59 years of age, doesn't pretend to know-or care-about politics. That's not why he's visiting his new congressman's office this Tuesday morning.

Tom Johnson is here for personal reasons. "I've got arthritis bad," he said. "It fires up my knees and my back. It even ruins my sex life. And it's all because of Agent Orange."

In Vietnam?

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

"No, up in Maryland. I worked at Aberdeen, at the proving grounds. That's where it got me-and now I'm a diabetic as well, and I think I got it from Agent Orange too. So I'm going to see if our new congressman can help me. This is probably my last chance."

So, Tom Johnson, since we're both sitting here waiting to talk to someone who can help us, let me ask you: Do you know what a Blue Dog Democrat is?

"Never heard of one," said Tom-grinning as if he were a seventh-grader who hadn't studied for his exam. "What's that?"

"Search me," said the fellow beside him wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. "Blue Dog Democrat? All I care about is if I get an answer from the Social Security crowd. They're so screwed up I thought I'd come over here to get some answers." But he worried that his troubles would only multiply if he gave me his name.

Here-and throughout the waiting room of Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) last week-were no lobbyists, no policy visionaries, no protesters. In the motley crowd of no-names was also not a person who had heard of Blue Dog Democrats. Out of 14 people-right in the office of a self-professed Blue Dog Democrat-no one could describe the phenomenon. Yet by any reasonable standard, Blue Dog Democrats have a singular opportunity now to make their mark on American politics. Yet their showing will have to be more pronounced.

On their very first run out of the congressional kennel, a few Blue Dogs at least let out a little yelp. It may not have counted for a lot just yet-except to keep the analysts, the skeptics, and the cynics all watching. The issue was embryonic stem-cell research-just blurry enough a legislative debate that some were reluctant to make it an early test. A few would say it was possible to go the wrong way on this one, and still come out a conservative.

It was HR 3, a high-priority bill in the Democratic leadership's short list of legislative promises they said they wanted to keep. Its overt purpose was to provide expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Almost as important, though, for many Democrats was the opportunity to offer a blunt reminder to President Bush that the new Congress would not hesitate to challenge him. This was, after all, the only issue on which the president had vetoed any action of the previous Congress. Here was a chance to say to Mr. Bush: We've got you this time.

But even if the Democrats succeed-and it is far from certain they will have enough votes to override a veto-they won't typically be doing it with lock-step loyalty from the Blue Dogs. The point of being a Blue Dog is that while you're a Democrat, you're an independent-minded Democrat. You don't necessarily shrink from parting ways with your party leaders.

If the "Blue Dog" tag sounds like a derisive label attached by their opponents, it isn't. It is a self-applied description, happily accepted by the 45 or so members of Congress who form the coalition. The nickname comes from the South's longtime description of a party loyalist who would vote even for a yellow dog if it were on the ballot as a Democrat. These Democratic loyalists, however, said they felt as if their moderate-to-conservative views had been "choked blue" by their party.

(Others claim the term refers to the "Blue Dog" paintings of the Louisiana Cajun artist George Rodrigue hanging on the walls of the offices of Louisiana congressmen Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes. Tauzin and Hayes were such rebels against the Democratic leadership that they ultimately converted to the GOP.)

The Blue Dog group first came together early in 1995, determined to gain a voice for moderates in an often radicalized Democratic Party. But if the early Tauzin-Hayes influence on the Blue Dogs was a little parochial for the tastes of many, no one should doubt that the current version is more broad-based. In the five elections from 1996 until 2004, 18 "Blue Pups" showed their clout, not just in the South but in many parts of the country, by defeating a variety of incumbent Republicans for congressional seats.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…