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Sit! Stay! A New York Times Chew Toy for Blue Dogs

The conservative wing of the Democratic Party just drove it over a cliff, but you'd never know if from reading Matt Bai's latestpiece.
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The conservative wing of the Democratic Party just drove it over a cliff, but you'd never know if from reading Matt Bai's latest New York Times piece. It's the latest in a series of Bai paeans to that odd mix of ideologies and opportunism that Washington types persist in calling "centrism," despite its ever-increasing distance from the real center of American opinion.

How is a Blue Dog different from all other dogs? Apparently when you love a blue dog, you lick it.

Like so many other commentators these days, Bai's so enmeshed in personalities and labels that he never gets around to the issues.In his piece the liberals are fighting with the centrists, Howard Dean's supporters don't like Rahm Emanuel, and it's all a reporter can do just to keep score. Unfortunately he never pauses to consider the possibility that policies, not personalities, might have been the key to victory.

Nor is he an impartial referee. Bai's long-standing devotion to the cause of ersatz centrism is matched only by his disdain for those he feels are embedded in old paradigms. That's hardly unusual. "Centrist" believers usually see themselves as the vanguard of a new idea, locked in combat against aging progressives who cling to obsolete modes of thinking. In a 2008 interview, Bai said this about 90's-era opponents of Bill Clinton's DLC-inspired triangulation (which he refers to somewhat awkwardly as "Clintonism"): "For many Democrats who came into politics through civil rights and the Vietnam era, Clintonism never really made sense. They saw it as a tactical feint. They never accepted the governing ideal behind it, the notion that liberal orthodoxy had run its course and you had to reevaluate much of the twentieth-century liberal agenda if you wanted to modernize government."

That's a nearly-spiritual evocation. But if he really believes that this mixture of dealmaking and pro-Wall Street, corporatist governance rises to the lofty status of a "governing ideal," he's gone considerably beyond Clinton's own position. "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," the former President likes to say. But to Bai, the "good" is "perfect." And who's the logical inheritor of the mantle in Bai's mind, this year's anointed apostle of the "governing ideal"? Steny Hoyer.

Steny Hoyer? He's the modernizer, the re-evaluator, the avatar of a new "governing ideal"? Steny Hoyer may have many virtues, but those aren't likely to be on the list.

People like Matt Bai are the ones caught in old paradigms. Bai's so anxious to put old hippies out to pasture that he never stops to consider what might have happened if Democrats had enacted more of the policies the "liberals" advocated. Instead he devotes altogether too much attention to exorcising the ghosts of the sixties and their contemporary signifiers. The word "liberal" appears 16 times in Bai's 938-word piece, while the name "Pelosi" appears 6 times and the name "Dean" 4 times.

That misplaced focus is what ultimately leads Bai to miss the real picture:

Voters don't think the way journalists and politicians do. They don't share Washington's obsession with labels, groups, and personalities. Instead they're drawn to those parties, ideologies, and people who get things done the way they want them done. One poll after another has shown that voters are furious at big banks, would like to see the wealthy carry more of the tax burden, and want to protect Social Security. If Democrats had acted more decisively to reflect those positions, they would have done far better last week. It wouldn't have mattered which personalities in Congress had prevailed, or what label they had given to their policies. The voters couldn't care less.

But no poll can ever convince people of that which they don't wish to understand. What Bai and others call "centrism" consists of a set of policy positions that voters across the political spectrum find odious, combined with a cynical, voter-driven style of governance voters find repugnant.

How can it be "centrist" to defeat the public option, which was supported by 51% of Republicans and a decisive majority of all voters? How can it be "centrist" to oppose tighter bank regulations when a poll taken earlier this year showed that 69% of voters (and 56% of Republicans) support them? How can it be "centrist" to support cutting Social Security when that position is not only opposed by most Americans, but by 76% percent of Tea Party supporters???? Yet Matt Bai ghettoizes those who hold these popular positions by calling them "liberals," and elevates those who oppose them with the "centrist" misnomer.

You don't have to study geometry to know that the "center" of something can't be on its far right. The polls are clear: The "bipartisanship" and "centrism" so beloved in Washington really exists - in the positions most DC insiders dismiss as "liberal." Bai makes much of the fact that the number of Americans who describe themselves as "conservative" rose from 36% in 2006 to 41%. Yet in poll after poll, these "conservative" Americans consistently embrace "liberal" positions.

Last year Bai described the centrists' mode of operation with considerable accuracy and insight. As Bai reported then, the more "progressive" House wrote a larger stimulus bill that would have created more jobs. Then Obama stood aside and let "centrist" Democrats in the Senate cut it down into something Bai characterized at the time as more "politically palatable."

Except that today unemployment is stalled at 9.6% - which isn't "politically palatable" at all, is it? Leading economists agree that a larger stimulus bill would have been more effective at reducing unemployment. The liberals in Pelosi's Congress were right, and now Democrats are paying for the disdain they received at the hands of the party's right wing.

"Centrists" in the Senate stripped the health reform bill of its most popular provisions, and defanged most of the key provisions in the financial reform bill. The public watched, aghast, as the "centrists" proved to be trustworthy servants of the banks, drug companies, and HMOs. (Expediency is "centrism"'s silent partner.)

If I thought that these Democrats had been guided by "liberalism," rather than by expediency and a misguided sense of "centrism," I'd probably call myself a conservative too. The "politically palatable" self-described Senate centrists didn't just eviscerate the bills that might have propelled their party to greater success. They either blocked (or chose not to fight for) more than 400 bills that the "Pelosi liberals" in Congress managed to pass, despite Bai's disdain for her leadership. Apparently voters failed to interpret this obstructionism as "pragmatism," despite flock of journalists suggesting that they do so. Instead they concluded, not entirely unreasonably enough, that Congress could have accomplished more. It did - until the "centrists" came along.

Matt Bai thinks it's "strange" when "liberals" argue that Democrats lost because "they refused to adopt a more populist stance toward business and opposed greater stimulus spending and a government-run health plan." But the first is a popular position to take against Wall Street. What Bai calls a "government-run health plan" was the public option, a variation on the wildly popular Medicare program that wins high approval ratings from Democrats and Republicans alike. An as for the stimulus , it would have been popular had it been large enough to put more people back to work.

You don't have to be a self-described "liberal" to support these positions, or to support the politicians who carry them out. While Bai writes disdainfully of liberal "litmus tests," a political party would be insane not to "test" for policies that are popular - or for those that would be if they were given a chance to succeed.

Bai's piece also includes the obligatory homage to Rahm Emanuel. He argues that progressives who criticize the the Blue Dogs today are, in effect, ungrateful hypocrites who used and then abandoned the trusting pups. Bai claims progressives applauded Emanuel when he recruited the same Blue Dogs in 2006. But Bai, who has written a book on the progressive movement, gets this one flat-out wrong. Progressives objected forcefully to Emanuel's approach in 2006,when Emanuel occasionally forced unsuccessful Blue Dogs on districts where a progressive might well have won, and inserted others in districts where a liberal would have done as well. And while Bai implies that Howard Dean has reversed himself - that in 2006 he wanted to "find candidates that could win everywhere" - that's not true. Dean always felt that candidates could win in Red districts by clearly articulating Democratic positions. That's exactly what candidates like Alan Grayson in Florida and Tom Perriello in Virginia eventually did.

Unfortunately Grayson, Perriello, and many other Democrats were brought down by the Blue Dogs and their mock-centrist pose. Voters saw too many Democratic politicians serving the interests of Wall Street and the insurance companies. Chances are the Democrats would've lost anyway with unemployment as high as it is, but we'll never know. The self-described centrists blocked the additional funding that would have created more jobs.

These dogs have fleas, and they left the entire party scratching. But there's always somebody ready to throw them a bone.


Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project and the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""