It may seem as if Barack Obama has his entire party mesmerized and swooning in support, but the blue dog Democrats are proving more difficult to sway.
The caucus of conservative-minded Democrats has been reluctant to cozy up to Obama, in some cases even distancing themselves from the popular presidential candidate. Scan the group's Web site, and you won’t find a single mention of their party’s presidential nominee.
During a special House election in May, for example, campaign ads linked Mississippi’s Democrat Rep. Travis Childers to Obama as well as his controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Childers was forced to run a 30-second response ad decrying attacks “linking me to politicians I don't know and have never even met.”
Opponents in Louisiana made similar claims about Rep. Don Cazayoux, who, like Childers, was forced to establish some distance between himself and Obama.
Both Childers and Cazayoux won their House races and now are members of the Blue Dog Caucus. But both congressmen skipped the Democratic National Convention in August, where Obama accepted the party’s nomination.
“Right now, it's more important for me to be in the district, working on issues important to my constituents,” Cazayoux said at the time.
The blue dogs were formed in 1994 after Republicans swept the long-entrenched Democrats from power. They tend to be social conservatives on such issues as abortion. But their big issue is fiscal discipline: balancing the budget and reducing the federal debt.
Many in the group are from the South, and the group took its name from the old adage that southerners would vote for a yellow dog if he were on the Democratic ballot. A blue dog, they decided, was a moderate or conservative "choked blue" by the Democrats in the years leading up to 1994.
Despite keeping Obama at arm’s length, at least publicly, most of the blue dogs say they are counting on a Democratic victory in November, and many in the caucus expect to be a key part of Obama’s inner circle of advisers if he wins.
This month, Obama reached out to several blue dog leaders, including Rep. Allen Boyd, a farmer from the rural Florida Panhandle, to discuss the $700 billion bailout package. Jason Furman, Obama’s chief economic policy adviser, has held his own extensive talks with blue dog Democrats. Furman told The Washington Post that Obama would seek to establish “a government unified around the concept of fiscal discipline and centered around the pay-go rule” that blue dog Democrats embrace. “Insisting on paying for things will lead to better economic policy.”
The House has 49 blue dogs — about 20 percent of the Democratic Caucus — who are expected to make big gains in the 111th Congress in districts once considered Republican strongholds. But the group’s main reason for being — playing a pivotal role in shaping fiscally responsible policy and passing a balanced budget on Capitol Hill — requires them to put aside partisanship and work closely with the White House. Especially if a Democrat is living there.
“We’re all Democrats first,” blue dog Co-Chairman Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas told Newsmax. “But we’re also blue dog members who are very independent minded. And we don’t always toe the party line. We look at the issue and whether it makes sense for the people we represent. The issues we care about are the issues the Democratic Party care about, and that’s why we’re Democrats.”
It’s still unclear what might happen after a Democratic victory in November, however. Will Obama be able to unite his increasingly diverse party behind a common agenda to tackle the economic crisis and try to balance the budget? Or will the party’s various power bases, riven by eight years in the political wilderness under President Bush, fracture and frustrate voters who have been demanding sweeping change?
Such concerns were on display Oct. 1, when Obama made a Senate floor speech shortly before the bailout vote on the virtues of fiscal discipline. “Runaway spending and record deficits are not how families run their budgets, and it can't be how Washington handles people's tax dollars," Obama said. "It's time to return to the fiscal responsibility we had in the 1990s. We need to go through the budget, get rid of programs that don't work, and make the ones we do need work better and cost less. With less money flowing into the Treasury, some useful programs or policies might need to be delayed in the years ahead.”
Blue dogs, in the moment at least, applauded Obama’s remarks as a sign that he’s willing to work closely with the caucus next year.
“It will be a very important relationship if [Obama] wants to move his agenda,” Ross said. “We’re 49 members strong and we’re likely to grow by several in the 111th session. We’ve got the votes that can make a difference. And he recognizes that.”
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