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Can You Beat Centrists at Their Own Game?

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Matt Yglesias, explaining the tactical thinking of liberals who want to draw a line in the sand over the public option, writes, "If you become known as the guys who are always willing to be reasonable and fold while the Blue Dogs are the guys who are happy to let the world burn unless someone kisses your ring, then in the short-term your reasonableness will let some things get done but over the long-term you’ll get squeezed out."

This seems a bit like a firefighter attempting to out-arson an arsonist. The reason the Blue Dogs have a reputation for being happy to let the world burn is that they really, really, really are willing to let the world burn, let health care fail, let cap-and-trade die, let Iraq grind on. The reason liberals have a reputation for not wanting to let the world burn is that all the anti-burn initiatives under discussion are, in fact, items from their agenda. They really, really, really don't want the world to burn. It's possible they'll be able to do it once. But what happens then? The Blue Dogs, now distancing themselves from a party that seems to be plummeting in the polls, will happily abandon cap-and-trade, because that's their preferred position anyway. Will the liberals? What if we need another stimulus? The Blue Dogs don't want to support that bill. Attracting them will require all manner of concessions, if it's possible at all. Will the liberals kill that, too?

What, in other words, is the endgame of this strategy? The hope seems to be that Rahm Emanuel turns his attention to beating Blue Dogs, rather than liberals, into line. Maybe. But what makes people think that's possible? What's his actual leverage against vulnerable Democrats voting for initiatives their voters don't obviously support in districts Barack Obama didn't win at a time when the president is no longer popular?

There's no successful model for blunting the power of centrists to write -- or kill -- the final compromise. President after president has found himself foiled by congressional centrists. George W. Bush never truly managed to bring Susan Collins, George Voinovich, or Olympia Snowe to heel. His tax cuts were smaller than he wanted, his Medicare expansion was pricier than conservatives liked, and his attempt to privatize Social Security was batted back. Bill Clinton fared little better. The hardest votes are the people who don't fundamentally want to vote for your agenda, not the people who do. And those are always the votes you get last.

The outcome of this strategy, then, seems to be that the Democratic Party pretty much collapses into infighting and fails to pass its top priorities and loses a bunch of seats in the next election. The media explains that the liberal Nancy Pelosi and her liberal House Democrats caused the electoral disaster, or that Democrats couldn't agree on an agenda. Long term, I'm not sure who that helps.

Which gets back to the original question: Can you beat the Blue Dogs at their own game of final-stage obstruction? The reason they've chosen that game, after all, is because their incentives are well aligned to win it. Liberals need another game. Maybe it's primary challenges. That strategy has certainly worked against Arlen Specter, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Grassley. Liberal groups certainly have the money to mount five or six high-profile challenges a season. Maybe it's procedural changes meant to weaken the power of centrists. Maybe it's something else. Maybe it's all of these things. But it's hard to imagine that liberals will ever beat the Blue Dogs at their own game. The likelier outcome is that everybody loses.

Photo credit: Stephen Chernin -- Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  September 3, 2009; 10:47 AM ET
Categories:  Democrats  
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Comments

let's be clear who the blue dogs are: they are republicans who are hiding out in the democratic party because they are scared of the thugs who run things on the gop side.

frankly, the democratic party would do better without them, so i absolutely favor systematic primary challenges against the most egregious blue dogs.

(i also favor an intelligence test before you can enter congress, which would pretty much take care of the blue dogs, but you can't have everything).

Posted by: howard16 | September 3, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

There is one problem with your analysis on the specific point of health care reform. If health care reform fails, and there is an anti-Democratic backlash, the representatives most likely to lose in 2010 are not progressives in safely Democratic seats, but Blue Dogs in southern and mid-western swing districts. Thus, the progressives do not have an electoral incentive to back down.

Posted by: mjames2 | September 3, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

What 1994 taught us, and should teach the Blue Dogs: If health insurance reform doesn't pass, the Blue Dogs will lose their re-election campaigns to "real" Republicans and the progressives will be re-elected to their safe seats. If health insurance reform passes, the Blue Dogs will be re-elected.

Blue Dogs win when they champion popular programs like Social Security, the TVA, Medicare. They lose when they try to be Republicans.

Posted by: xtalguy | September 3, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

The left should hold the line and let Blue Dogs cross it if they dare. I suspect this isn't even the real problem. There are reports that Obama *promised* the stakeholders there would be no public option. It's just sad to see how this White House bungled reform so badly. All other things being equal a more competent team would have gotten a better bill than we will have now.

Posted by: bmull | September 3, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

"If health insurance reform doesn't pass, the Blue Dogs will lose their re-election campaigns to "real" Republicans and the progressives will be re-elected to their safe seats."

Absolutely. When you hear someone like Heath Shuler -- a rich ex-NFLer in a district with over 20% of adults uninsured -- poses as a deficit hawk, you just wonder what his political calculations are. Other than that he's a very dim bulb. So let them go ahead and screw up reform, and open the door for GOP challengers who say that government can't do anything.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | September 3, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

As Mr. Yglesias points out, if you never fight for anything then very soon you are not taken seriously on anything. Mr. Klein suggests that liberal Democrats and congressmen NOT fight for heath care or cap-and-trade. OK, what significant issue DO you suggest that the liberals fight for? Because if they don't eventually fight for something...

Posted by: sphealey | September 3, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

The operative strategy is to play chicken with the Blue Dogs not by drawing a line in the sand on what you think you can pass, but drawing a line in the sand far, far to the left of what you think is possible. THEN you play chicken with the Blue Dogs, telling them that they can either negotiate a compromise with the extreme position to get closer to what is possible and then declare victory, they can let everything blow up, and they get unseated by republicans. The good-government-types always make the mistake of coming up with the "politically possible" solution and then let it get watered down.

Posted by: constans | September 3, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

As the comments above said. If the Democratic brand tanks, the Blue Dogs are the first out. I think there is some way to at least convince some of the Blue Dogs that it is in their best interest to keep the Dem brand popular.
Now I believe that some Blue Dogs already have quid pro quo's along the lines of "we know that if you help us tank health care you are probably going to lose your seat, but if you can pull it off, we will pay for your vacation, and then hire you on as a lobbyist after a year", but all of them can't have gotten that deal already, can they?

Posted by: flounder2 | September 3, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

"If health insurance reform doesn't pass, the Blue Dogs will lose their re-election campaigns to "real" Republicans and the progressives will be re-elected to their safe seats."

Not sure i understand this. Does anyone think that Blue Dogs will be better off if health care reform passes? Especially if a more liberal bill w a public plan passes?? If their constituents are opposed to reform why should blue dogs support it?? perhaps their best bet is that liberals hold the line, blue dogs refuse to support a bill, and the bill fails to pass.

I think Exra's right on this one

Posted by: mbp3 | September 3, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Senator Gillibrand has always been pro -public option. In fact, it was her would-be primary opponent, Carolyn Maloney, who refused to promise to deliver a health plan that included the public option.

Perhaps you should leave Senator Gillibrand out of your future natterings about Blue Dogs.

Posted by: prettierthanyou | September 3, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

mbp3, if the bill fails to pass, then the Republicans are energized and the Democratic base gets depressed. The constituents of the Blue Dogs are faced with the choice of a Republican candidate they KNOW is against Obama and a Democratic candidate who SAYS he's against Obama. The voters pick the real deal over the wannabe and can't count on a Democratic base willing to back him up in a tough fight out of party solidarity.

If the bill does pass with Blue Dog input, then the Democratic base is willing to support him, because they're energized after a victory, and the Blue Dogs can go home to their constituents and say how they fought for their constituents and make sure that the voices of the Great and Honorable People of Podunk were heard, and if they want more of that, to send Rep. Blue Dog back to Congress.

The thing is that the Blue Dogs need something to take back to their home districts, and the Democrats need something they actually want.

Ezra misunderstood the dynamics of Bush's tax cuts completely. Did he REALLY think that Bush felt defeated because the tax cuts weren't large enough? Of course not. But Collins and Snowe got to act like they "did something" by making the cuts smaller than what Bush asked for, but Bush was perfectly happy with that to begin with.

Posted by: constans | September 3, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

1. Deny them the air cover of the Democratic Party Brand.
2. Make that brand stand for something, by strongly advocating strong reform, AND by demonizing your enemies.

It is exactly what LBJ and FDR did.

I only hope that what Obama has been doing is laying the groundwork for item 2, by "giving bipartisanship a chance." And watching it fail.

Posted by: Dollared | September 3, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

That's right Ezra.

Don't fight for what's right, no matter what.
Afraid the White House won't return your phone calls?

Posted by: kmblue | September 3, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

What most everybody else said, duh.

I don't remember who coined the term, and I never really got it until now, but... I feel like you're going Very Serious Person on us, Ezra. :/

Posted by: caitiedidit | September 3, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Theoretically, Obama and the Whitehouse control the democratic party. Its time to play hardball and deny legislative plums and campaign help to the bluedogs that don't tow the line. Remember, the public option is already the compromise position from single payer, the CHEAPER, EASIER, ALREADY PROVEN TO WORK, medicare like option that most progressives would like. What more do they want? If democrats can't impose some party discipline, nothing of consequence will ever get done.

Posted by: srw3 | September 3, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

constans - thanks for the response. I guess the fundamental difference in our thinking is that i'm not convinced it's better for Dems, esp. Blue Dogs, if HC reform passes (in terms of holding or increasing majorities). Blue Dogs were asked to vote for a stimulus and cap and trade bill - which many of their constituents opposed. If they run in 2010 having also voted for HC reform are they in more or less trouble? Lots of the Blue Dogs ran as fiscal hawks. Isn't it easier to get re-elected for some of the same reasons they were elected in the first place?

And won't passing a reform bill with a public plan energize Republicans more than anything else? I understand progressive policy goals for a strong public plan, but actually passing it would be disastrous for the 2010 election.

Perhaps the answer is that some (many?) of the new Blue Dogs were going to face major re-election challeneges regardless, given Obama's agenda.

Posted by: mbp3 | September 3, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Isn't the purpose of having 'whips' putting people in line?

Frankly, if health care is a true priority, decided on by the leadership, you can make not voting the right way pretty painful.

This has nothing to do with individual approaches to policy.

Posted by: leoklein | September 3, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

The left has to squeeze the middle from both sides: they have to create a situation wherein the middle must vote for some solution if they are to win re-election, then push the most liberal solution that the middle can sell to their constituents.

With respect to health reform, I think the left has succeeded on the former, and the question is over the latter: what can the middle sell to their constituents? The middle will make a conservative estimate, of course, and the left has to push for a more realistic one.

Posted by: dcamsam | September 3, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I think it's funny that liberals are trying to tell Blue Dogs that the lesson of '94 is that you have to vote with your party here. The lesson from '94 is that the democrats who voted AGAINST HillaryCare and the tax increases were all re-elected. The Democrats that voted for the tax increases but opposed HillaryCare were knocked off around 25%, and the blue dogs who supported both were knocked off at a significantly higher rate. Nancy Pelosi and tax-cheat rangel can lecture every blue dog about these issues, but there is a reason that neither of them would be invited to campaign for them.

Posted by: TexasProud1 | September 3, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

There are more liberals in the Democratic caucus than Blue Dogs. Our own caucus rules should not give people who are barely, marginally Democrats this much leverage.

Committee chairs need to be determined by elections; a standing, organized infrastructure for primary challenges needs to be developed; and Barack Obama needs to start getting very activist about where he spends that hope-and-change based campaign cash and political capital. And Harry Reid absolutely should not be Majority Leader.

This whole sequence has shown the absolute bankruptcy of the Democrats' long-held Big Tent approach. When the tent can comfortably include Max Baucus, what's the point? There is no point in donating to or working for a party that cannot even stir itself to pass the core elements of its own legislative policy.

Posted by: NS12345 | September 3, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

"Blue Dogs were asked to vote for a stimulus and cap and trade bill - which many of their constituents opposed. If they run in 2010 having also voted for HC reform are they in more or less trouble?"

If a politician can't bring themselves to support health care reform, environmental regulation, or government intervention to prevent economic catastrophe, why are they even in the Democratic Party?

Serious question. Rule that stuff out and what's left of Democratic core values? Immigration and unions, I suppose, but I don't see Baucus, Lincoln, or the rest taking leadership roles there either. If they're not willing to budge on these absolutely fundamental Democratic issues, aren't they just free riding on party resources that could go to better use elsewhere?

Posted by: NS12345 | September 3, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Very smart column. Where the progressives do have leverage is with things they don't want anyway, like extending the Bush tax cuts. There they REALLY have leverage because if nothing is done, the cuts expire, which is what the progressives want. So maybe some modification here becomes a bargaining chip. Or voting for more wars. Anything, really, that involves voting money for things the progressives DON'T want, or voting for things they don't want. But Ezra is right that it won't work for things we fundamentally DO want.

Sometimes incremental is better than nothing. Certainly if it staves off electoral defeat. But I astill think the Blue Dogs are at more risk of defeat if health care isn't enacted than the progressives, who are mostly in very safe districts.

Posted by: Mimikatz | September 3, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I think most of the commenters are mistaken about whom the Progressives are threatening. It isn't the Blue Dogs who are desperate to pass a bill, any bill. It's President Obama. He needs to pass some kind of reform, no matter what it is, or seriously damage his changes of both reelection in three years and of getting anything else done before then. So yes, Rahm Emanuel and other White House enforcers do have an incentive to twist some Senatorial arms. And what can they offer? At the very least, the presence or absence of the most potent fundraising machine in the party?

As for Bush's problems with Voinovich, Collins, Snowe, Chafee, Jeffords, etc., first of all they were never as great as you imply. His initial tax cut was trimmed only slightly, and he passed more tax cuts as his term went on. His expansion of Medicare was something conservatives didn't want at all, and I don't know what the moderates had to do with his pushing it. The only one of your examples I think is at all analogous is the Social Security one, and that was an attempt to change one of the most popular programs in the history of the federal government. Besides which Bush never had a legislative majority as big as Obama enjoys now.

Posted by: jmalbin | September 3, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

jmalbin, if passing health-care-access reform is essential to obama's re-election, how did clinton win in '96?

what's essential to obama's re-election (and, for that matter, to the 2010 elections) is for the economy to be discernibly better.

what's important about passing health-care reform (above, of course, its actual beneficial affects for the country as a whole) is the energizing affect it will have on the dems, and in particular about being bolder on further stimulus.

Posted by: howard16 | September 3, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

agree with the commenter above: the lesson of 94 isn't that Blue Dogs must vote the Dem party line. It's that they must vote their constituent's interests. If that makes them not Democrat enough for the party leaders then so be it.

Progressives goal is to get a big, very liberal HC reform bill passed. Blue Dogs goal is to get re-elected. For Blue Dogs, which one will win? I say re-election. Any blue dog who opposes HC reform, a second stimulus, and cap and trade has a good shot at re-election. Anyone who supports all 3 is done.

Posted by: mbp3 | September 3, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

mbp3, there's something to be said for the "nothing succeeds like success" principle. A Blue Dog who has a record of opposing Obama when Obama's administration is a failed one has a better chance at re-election than a Blue Dog who supported Obama. The best chance of all for the Blue Dogs is if the Blue Dogs are running when the Democratic brand is a very popular one. If the Blue Dogs sabotage the Democratic brand, then many of the blue dogs end up getting thrown out, even if a few of them manage to survive as a representative of their constituents.

The question is why the constituents would support the Blue Dog rather than his Republican opponent.

Posted by: constans | September 3, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

howard16: You're right. The effect on Obama's reelection chances could well be small, though I think his advisors are probably assuming it's at least a small negative. I believe the effect on his ability to get anything else through Congress in his first term would be large, though.

Posted by: jmalbin | September 3, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

The premise of this article is disingenuous. The world is not burning. Such sophistry is a tool of fear mongers. Extremists on the left or right expound policies which they hope will set the world on fire (under the general guise of "reform"). Nice try.....

Posted by: TopGun4 | September 3, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Ezra Klein makes no pretense that he isn't a koolaid drinking, whackadoodle, MoveOn.org finger biting, radical left-wing liberal -- so why isn't the Washington Post hiring a sane moderate or republican to balance Ezra Klein's censorship and propaganda on behalf of the Obama Administration? Are they so intend on alienating anyone who isn't a radical leftist and having no revenue?

I would sign on to a boycott of the 3 remaining advertisers of the Washington Post, but that would mean I would be boycotting products I don't use -- Obama Inaugural Plates, Weight-Loss Drugs, and Psychics.

Posted by: Cornell1984 | September 3, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Give the republicans a gift -- pass liberal health care reform -- it will be easy to run on the platform to stop or overturn the legislation, highlight the $10 billion giveaway to the UAW snuck in the bill, and to promise NO MORE CZARS.

Blue Dogs are the only reason the dems got the majority. I suspect 30-40 Blue Dog seats are turned over to republicans if health care reform passes in its current state.

Posted by: Cornell1984 | September 3, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

"What's his actual leverage against vulnerable Democrats voting for initiatives their voters don't obviously support in districts Barack Obama didn't win at a time when the president is no longer popular?"

Are you serious? Who do you think the DCCC spends all its money on? It ain't the progressives. I don't see how the national dems have leverage over anyone BUT the blue dogs.

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | September 3, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

At least Klein is young enough to still be on his parents' health insurance policy.

And I bet it's a good one.

Posted by: imcotton1991 | September 3, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Can we beat lefties with a rolled up WaPo?

Posted by: johnhiggins1990 | September 3, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

"Give the republicans a gift -- pass liberal health care reform -- it will be easy to run on the platform to stop or overturn the legislation."

Excuse me? The Republicans are digging in hard against health care reform because they KNOW if it passes it will work and be popular. Same story as Social Security and Medicare. They oppose this not because it won't work, but because it will work and will wreck their dogma based positions.

For the Republicans, this is a a do or die issue, because if they lose they will lose the large constituency that discovers that the "death panals, rationing, crippling taxes," and so on are all campaign trail myths. People who find they get good health care are not likely to rise up an repudiate it, just as, despite right wing blather, they found they liked Social Security and Medicare. The story is the same everywhere, from Canada to France to Switzerland to Taiwan. People like having health care that works for them.

Posted by: PatS2 | September 3, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

"The reason liberals have a reputation for not wanting to let the world burn is that all the anti-burn initiatives under discussion are, in fact, items from their agenda. They really, really, really don't want the world to burn."

But do the liberals want health care reform enough to pay for it with savings elsewhere in the massive federal budget rather than hitting up the (ever-shrinking) taxbase, again? Apparently not, to judge by their actions. If they would only reprioritize government spending it would be easy to find money to pay for the truly needy. The fierce moral urgency they feel evidently doesn't extend to cutting largesse for their well-to-do consitutents.

"The outcome of this strategy, then, seems to be that the Democratic Party pretty much collapses into infighting and fails to pass its top priorities and loses a bunch of seats in the next election."

Another possibility, it seems to me, is that they make the cornerstone of their legislative record an unpopular bill and, in the process of achieving it, destroy their president's claim to be post-partisan deal-maker and exhaust his political capital...only to lose a bunch of seats in the next election.

Posted by: tbass1 | September 3, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse

"There's no successful model for blunting the power of centrists to write -- or kill -- the final compromise."

One possibility is getting 51 Democrats and the VP to be willing to permanently end the filibuster with rulings from the chair.

Add to that an all out effort to defeat Snowe, Collins, and Lieberman in their quite blue states.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | September 3, 2009 11:22 PM | Report abuse

"The lesson from '94 is that the democrats who voted AGAINST HillaryCare and the tax increases were all re-elected."

There was never a vote on the Health Security Act, and thus no Democrat could have voted for or against it.

There was a vote on the budget, and seven of the 34 Democratic House incumbents who lost re-election voted against the budget - Karan English, Richard H. Lehman, Jill Long, Richard Swett, Herb Klein, David S. Mann, and Jay Inslee - a higher rate of opposition than the caucus as a whole.

Opposition did not protect anyone in 1994 and it won't protect anyone in 2010.

Posted by: dcamsam | September 3, 2009 11:29 PM | Report abuse

You know, my comment, "Add to that an all out effort to defeat Snowe, Collins, and Lieberman in their quite blue states.", brings up an important point.

It's much more valuable to beat Snowe and Collins in Maine, Lieberman in Connecticut, and Judd Greg in New Hampshire, than it is to gain seats in, say, North Dakota or Montana, because in blue states we can get strong reliable Democrats, who won't balk at voting for truly valuable bills, and force us to do far less good.

Democrats should really focus much more resources on winning seats in blue states, than on getting just moderately less conservative senators in red states.

The difference between a Ben Nelson and a Republican is far less than the difference between a strong blue state Democrat and a Judd Greg.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | September 4, 2009 3:25 AM | Report abuse

OMG. You've become Joe Klein. They pay you for this? Really?

Posted by: thejoshuablogs | September 5, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

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