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November 9, 2006
Herding Cats, Or Blue Dogs

Now that the Democrats have won control of both chambers of Congress, their real challenge has begun -- big-tent governing. The Democrats took control by nominating center-right candidates to replace Republicans, and now they will have to find ways in which to unify their caucus to get their issues advanced. As the departing Republican leadership can tell them, it's not as easy as it looks:

They wear cowboy boots, chew tobacco, love hunting, hate abortion, want less government spending — and some voted for Ronald Reagan. Now they are headed to Congress as Democrats.

Although the Democrats’ victory was above all an overwhelming repudiation of the conflict in Iraq, it was also built on the back of moderate, often conservative candidates recruited to compete in traditionally Republican territory.

When Congress returns in January, both the House and Senate will see something of an ideological shift, with an influx of freshmen Democrats who, while unified in their opposition to the war, are well to the right of the party’s current caucus on cultural issues.

Their success reflects a resurgence of “Blue Dog” Democrats — socially conservative but generally economic populists — across the Midwest, and a bold new strategy to target the Republican-leaning West and South West — states such as Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico — as a way of winning back the White House in 2008.

Conservatives have spent the last few years wondering what happened to the Blue Dog Democrats, and the easy answer was that they became Republicans. The parties began to divide by ideology during the Reagan years, and the migration became significant in the 1990s. Out of sheer political expediency, the power brokers in the Democratic ranks backed candidates like Heath Shuler and Jim Webb -- who resembles a Buchananite more than a Blue Dog -- for the sole purpose of winning majorities in Congress.

If one doubts that, when was the last time the national party put so much of its efforts and treasure behind pro-life candidates? At their last national convention, the party erupted into criticism when a pro-life politician merely wanted to address the delegates:

On Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before the Convention adopted the party's platform, the Democrats for Life of America rallied outside Faneuil Hall and in front of the statue of Samuel Adams. They cheered the great advances pro-life Democrats had made in recent years and decried the new party platform. In 2000 the party's platform included big tent language, saying: "The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party." In 2004 that had changed to excluding all pro-life Democrats from the party. The US Senators, Congressmen, ambassadors, state legislators, clergy and ativists from around the country rejected the new language that said it was only "Republican efforts" at work to protect pregnant women and their unborn children.

Now that they have a majority, though, these same candidates that they actively recruited will now want to vote their conscience on these matters, and the Democrats may have some tough battles with their special-interest groups. Many of them oppose new taxes, for instance, and the New Direction plan for Democrats calls for big increases in social spending. The newbies did not join the Democrats in order to instill socialism, and some in the activist community may find these new members very trying indeed.

Democrats could abide the Blue Dogs in days gone by because they had large enough majorities to make them less relevant. With the razor-thin majorities they have now, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi may find herding Blue Dogs as frustrating as herding cats.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 9, 2006 5:02 AM

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