Berman: Boot the Blue Dogs

Over the weekend, journalist Ari Berman had an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Boot the Blue Dogs.” Berman writes:

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.

A smaller majority, minus the intraparty feuding, could benefit Democrats in two ways: 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 concludes:

Republicans have become obsessed with ideological purity, and as a consequence they will likely squander a few winnable races in places like Delaware. But 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. Polls show that, despite their best efforts to distance themselves from Speaker Pelosi and President Obama, a number of Blue Dog Democrats are likely to be defeated this November. Their conservative voting records have deflated Democratic activists but have done nothing to win Republican support.

Far from hastening the dawn of a post-partisan utopia, President Obama’s election has led to near-absolute polarization. If Democrats alter their political strategy accordingly, they’ll be more united and more productive.

I think this is really the right task. What’s been clear over the past two years is that the size of the caucus is not as important as its quality. A conservative bloc within the House and Senate has the ability to stop legislation that the overwhelming majority of Democrats wants from moving forward, or if it is allowed to move, it’s only after it has been made markedly worse. Democrats are left to negotiate with themselves while Republicans laugh at our ineffectiveness.

Having a big caucus with representatives from all parts of the country is great. I hope we continue to win elections in traditional Republican districts. But the Democrats who come from these places, a meaningful minority in the caucus, should not have their interests placed ahead of Democrats who actually believe in the Democratic agenda. The offer to Blue Dogs should be this: wear the D after your name and vote for a progressive Speaker or Majority Leader and you’ll get the added power that comes with serving in the majority. But you don’t get to undermine the ability of the party to hold onto the majority by sabotaging legislation. If that arrangement works, Blue Dogs should absolutely stay with the caucus. If not, the party infrastructure should cut them off from all support and seniority and this cohort should slowly wilt at the election booth.

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