Can Blue Dogs Survive?

You don’t see a lot of blue dogs at your neighborhood park, and you won’t find many in the next Congress, either. As a political animal, the Blue Dog is in danger of following the Whig and the Mugwump into extinction.

Twenty-five moderately conservative House Democrats form today’s Blue Dog Coalition. Two of them, Pennsylvanians Jason Altmire and Tim Holden, were defeated in their party’s primary this week. Five more are retiring. Others must fight for their political lives in November in Republican-leaning districts where they will face an onslaught of GOP-allied super PAC money, which accurately targets them as vulnerable. When the smoke clears, just a dozen or so Dogs may remain.

Only two years ago, 54 Blue Dogs together formed one of the most powerful packs on Capitol Hill. They forced the inclusion of “pay as you go” rules in President Obama’s economic stimulus plan (not that it did much good, as very little has been paid for while the budget deficit has gone north of $1 trillion a year), and their opposition doomed liberal Democrats’ dreams of building health care reform around a single government payer.

The Blue Dogs are the proud, if beleaguered, holdouts in the center of U.S. politics – and their plight illustrates the big problem with holding the middle ground in a conflict. You are exposed to the crossfire, threatened by both sides.

This is precisely what decimated the Blue Dogs in the 2010 elections. While none lost a primary challenge that year (unlike this week’s unfortunate Pennsylvanians), a half-dozen Blue Dogs chose to retire or to run, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for other offices. Another 23 were defeated by Republicans in the general election, generally hurt by voter concern over Washington spending and over-reach, and particularly by a backlash against the health care law in conservative parts of the country. When the current Congress took office, the Blue Dog population had been cut in half. Next year, their numbers may be halved again.

Redistricting by Republican-controlled legislatures is getting a lot of the blame for the Blue Dogs’ plight. But gerrymandering and reapportionment affects all lawmakers, not just Blue Dogs. It has created equal or greater problems for liberal Democrats, especially in northern states that are losing seats to the Sun Belt.

The real problem is that the American political system is losing its capacity to support diverse species, including the Blue Dogs, but also the nearly vanished socially liberal Republican.

The process of choosing candidates through primary elections is democratically sound, but because most Americans are not interested enough to vote in primaries, the system exaggerates the power of each party’s most hard-core and committed base. For the Democrats, this is the labor vote; for Republicans, it is the social conservatives.

The Democratic Party has become the party of unionized labor, and particularly of the public sector work force, which represents the majority of all union workers today. They pay taxes, but taxes also pay them, so Democrats inevitably favor higher taxes – especially on people with higher incomes in the private sector. Labor-oriented Democrats exist in a sometimes uneasy coalition with environmentalists, minority groups and social liberals, but these groups of fellow travelers are prone to find themselves tossed overboard when their goals conflict with the labor base. This is why Democratic presidents signed and defended the Defense of Marriage Act, and why health care reform was amended to satisfy the demands of Catholic bishops for restrictions on abortion coverage.

The Republican Party has become the party of social conservatives, even this year, when presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and GOP leaders desperately want to keep voters focused on the economy and Obama’s fiscal record. As Jon Huntsman discovered, no Republican candidate can get past the starting gate without paying homage to the party base. The social conservatives also maintain a sometimes uneasy coalition with business interests, fiscal conservatives, free traders, xenophobes, and whites who feel disadvantaged by affirmative action, but the core of the party still revolves around social issues. A socially liberal but fiscally conservative Republican can be a strong general election candidate, but in most of the country, such an individual has no chance of getting past a GOP primary.

Like all creatures, a Blue Dog needs both a habitat and a home. Blue Dog habitat is a House district that is not solidly Republican, but where the labor vote is not too big and the minority population is not so large as to expect to be represented by one of its own. (Blue Dogs almost invariably come with white skins.) Such territory is increasingly scarce.

And the Blue Dog must make his political home in a party that tolerates occasional departures from labor-inspired orthodoxy. His party must be willing to consider him for leadership roles, so the Blue Dog can fetch enough bacon to win his constituents’ favor. But other Democrats increasingly view Blue Dogs as, at best, a necessary evil, to be accommodated only insofar as they are useful in putting a real Democrat – like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – in power.

The Blue Dogs don’t have a natural home in the Republican Party, either. Former Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama discovered this after he switched from the Democrats to the Republicans in 2009. He was defeated in a Republican primary the next year. The same thing happened, more prominently, to former Sen. Arlen Specter, a definite non-Blue Dog (they only exist in the House, not the Senate) who went from the Republicans to the Democrats, provided a key vote for Obama’s health care overhaul, and was promptly defeated in a Democratic primary. Each party’s orthodox priesthood viscerally opposes converts at the national level, even though party-switching is fairly common in lower-profile state and local offices.

I’m going to miss those Blue Dogs yipping on the House floor. They were a remnant of an era when officeholders occasionally voted against their party lines. But don’t blame the Dogs, or the legislators who changed their districts, or the Democratic Party, which can’t decide whether to keep them at the table or banish them to the doghouse. If in your heart you are a socially tolerant Republican or a fiscally conservative Democrat, and you don’t belong to your natural party or vote in its primaries, blame yourself. You can’t protect the political environment by staying home and watching TV.

About Larry M. Elkin 564 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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