Blue Dog Democrats: Are they spoilers in the healthcare reform effort?


The so-called “Blue Dog Democrats” have been portrayed as Republicans in disguise who repeatedly obstruct efforts at party unity in the face of Republican intransigence. We asked Isaac Peterson to poll some of our more progressive legislators on how they view their Blue Dog colleagues, and specifically how the Blue Dogs are currently influencing their work on healthcare reform.

Many people are familiar with the term “Yellow Dog Democrat,” a term that strictly applied to Southern voters who voted for Democratic Party candidates no matter what. As the saying went, a Yellow Dog Democrat would “vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for any Republican.” This obviously changed around the time of the “Reagan revolution,” when the Republican Party made major inroads in the South.

More recently, the group that has been making headlines is the “Blue Dog Democrats,” a group that consists of legislators rather than voters. To many pundits and outside observers, the Blue Dogs, although Democrats, loom as a major obstacle to both President Barack Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s agendas, particularly regarding healthcare reform.

The Blue Dogs is a group of moderate to conservative Democrats that formed in about 1994; its members tend to come from conservative districts. They are likely to be fiscal conservatives and also to value a strong national defense and bipartisanship – the last a value they appear to share with President Obama.

The Blue Dog coalition reportedly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill to limit access to bankruptcy protection, and they backed the Bush administration’s tax cut proposals as well as its plans for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In light of the attention Blue Dog Democrats have been getting in the course of the healthcare reform debate, the MSR spoke with three members of the Minnesota congressional delegation: Senator Al Franken and Representatives Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison. However, despite repeated efforts, we were unable to obtain input from U.S Representative Collin Peterson (Seventh Congressional District), Minnesota’s sole Blue Dog coalition member.

Although the Blue Dog Coalition often tends to be painted with one broad brushstroke, as we shall see in the comments by the three legislators, pinning them down can be an exercise in frustration.

One point all three Democratic legislators maintained as a common theme is that the Blue Dogs are necessary to maintain the Democratic majority in the federal legislature.

Ellison said, “But for them, we might not be in the majority. There are 257 Democrats and about 55 Blue Dogs, so if they weren’t in Congress, we would be in the minority – that is, assuming that they would be replaced by Republicans, which a lot of them would be.”

McCollum added, “Without those [Blue Dog] Democrats, we wouldn’t have Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. They all support Nancy, and we wouldn’t have John Conyers and Charlie Rangel being the chairs of their respective committees.”

Speaking of a Medicare reimbursement issue in which she was involved, McCollum also said, “A lot of the Blue Dogs were very instrumental in helping me and a couple of other people who were working on this issue be very successful in the House to get this inequity that Minnesota and 17 other states found themselves in addressed. They didn’t think it was fair, so they were very helpful on Minnesota-specific issues.”

Franken put forth the view that “We need to focus less on differences among Democrats and more on our common goals. We’re facing too many serious challenges right now, and we have to focus on problem solving. It’s going to take all of us working together to make the change we voted for last November, and I’m incredibly hopeful about what I’ve seen since I got here.”

If the Democrats we spoke with feel any frustration with the Blue Dog coalition, it was only hinted at. Ellison voiced a kind of admiration for what they have accomplished: Progressives in Congress outnumber Blue Dogs about three to two, but the Progressive Caucus has not been able to make its voice heard to the same extent as the Blue Dogs.

McCollum called the situation with the Blue Dogs “kind of a mixed bag,” saying, “Sometimes [we may] feel like they’re slowing the debate down or maybe not having the debate go the direction we want it to, but on the other hand, without them we wouldn’t have the strong majority that we do have to have pushed through a lot of things that are important, [such as] climate change legislation. A lot of them made a very risky vote and supported the Democrats on that.”

Although Ellison regards many Blue Dogs as friends, he also said, “They’ve been good [with much of the rest of the democratic agenda], but I think in general they’re with the economic populism and, in general, economic populism for the middle class is something you more or less can count on them for.

“But that doesn’t quite match up with the arguments around health care,” Ellison continued. “Because health care is such an incredibly large percentage of a family budget, you would expect them to be on board with the public option. The public option is about economic populism. The fact that we’ve been battling them to get them on board with this is somewhat surprising.”

Ellison added, “We do need to bring greater sensitivity to Blue Dogs, because some of them have very high percentages of working-class people – people of color – in their districts, and they don’t always vote in a way that would reflect that they are aware of that.”

In its August 3, 2009, issue, the Los Angeles Times noted that “According to the Center for Public Integrity, the biggest backer of the Blue Dogs’ political action committee (PAC) is the healthcare industry, which is on the path to pumping a total of $1.2 million into the PAC’s maw in the current 2009-10 election cycle.”

Initially it appeared that those contributions were working, as Blue Dogs sided with Republican opponents of healthcare reform and succeeded in delaying the vote from summer to this fall. But, it may be that some Blue Dogs are starting to pick up some of that “greater sensitivity” to which Ellison referred.

Since the August recess, several Blue Dogs have broken ranks and voiced support for the public option, with California Blue Dog Representatives Jane Harman and Loretta Sanchez penning an October 15 piece in the Huffington Post called “Why We’re Breaking with the Blue Dogs on the Public Option.” There have since been other defections, and as this is being written, the public option seems to be picking up daily support.

These are encouraging signs, and Franken remains optimistic about his prospects for being able to work with Senate Blue Dogs: “All the Blue Dogs in the Senate are for health care reform,” he said, “and that’s critical.”

Franken went on to note that “There are a lot of critical aspects of healthcare reform that aren’t ideological at all. Ending tax breaks to drug companies for advertising (we give tax breaks to drug companies for advertising now) isn’t ideological – it’s just common sense. Making sure insurance companies spend the money you send them on providing health care instead of CEO profits or more TV ads isn’t ideological – it’s common sense.

“Forcing insurance companies to all use the exact same form so doctors aren’t spending 30 percent of their time on paperwork isn’t ideological. And these reforms will save us billions of dollars that we can use to make sure every Minnesotan has access to affordable care.”

Isaac Peterson welcomes reader responses to