Divining The Motives Of The Blue Dogs, Part One

09/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Blue Dog Democrats. They are the rock in the road around which health care reform must go. Everybody talks about them, but who really spends any time wildly speculating on their motivations? Starting today, we will spend four days examining the four possible drivers of Blue Dog behavior -- and why they seem so intent on derailing health care reform into some sort of hyper-timid, incrementalist mush. Perhaps, by the end of this, we can understand these Blue Dog Mysteries a little better. Perhaps not! Maybe we'll get lucky and the earth will have collided with the sun, making it so we don't have to worry about health care reform ever again. Let us begin!

Option One: The Blue Dogs Are Taking A Principled Stand.

Seriously! Let's consider for a moment that the Blue Dogs might be acting on principle.

Imagining the ideal centrist calls to mind a player in the midst of a stormy debate, using his ability to relate to both sides to achieve the best possible outcome. This sort of work calls for policy expertise, a talent for communication, and the willingness to forgo credit.

But with the Blue Dogs, we see less vital centrism and more hollow paeans to bipartisanship. And as far as policy principles go, when pressed the Blue Dogs reveal that don't have very coherent ones. ThinkProgress's Matt Yglesias once went looking for substance behind the Blue Dogs' opposition to health care reform and found none:

[T]hey're concerned that the bill (a) costs too much overall and (b) will increase the deficit. And their proposed solutions to this are to (a) increase the cost of the bill by neutering the public plan and (b) decrease the quantity of revenue by fiddling with the employer mandate.... Maybe Harry Potter knows a spell that could untie this mess of contradictions.

Yglesias's colleague Igor Volsky, citing a letter that the Blue Dog Coalition sent to Nancy Pelosi last month, noted that their explication of principles doesn't make much sense:

[T]he letter contains an inherent contradiction: the Blue Dogs want to find more savings within the system -- they're asking for Delivery System Reforms and "maximizing the value of our health care dollar" -- but they're also asking the bill to spend more on rural health and physician reimbursement. And they are reluctant to support any legislation that moves us towards that goal, causes providers to lose revenue, or regulates the system to improve efficiency.

Consider their objection to a "Medicare-like" public option that reimburses providers 5 to 10 percent above Medicare rates. According to MedPAC, Medicare rates are adequate and consistent with the efficient delivery of services. In fact, over-payments by private insurers to health-care providers drive up overall costs.

I wish I could say that this manner of policy stupidity was an outlier, but, sadly, it's the norm. Remember back during the stimulus fight, when so-called Senate "centrist Democrat" Ben Nelson (just like a Blue Dog, only in the other chamber) wanted to cut $15 billion from the bill allocated for "school construction?" Why'd he want to do that? Would cutting that money make a better bill? Nelson couldn't answer the question, coherently.

So these aren't the active, powerful, diligent workers at the center that these big policy debates need. Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein has them dead to rights:

The problem with the Blue Dogs is that they tend to confuse centrism with splitting the difference between the warring camps, or making policy by choosing one from Column A and one from Column B. The more effective centrists use their political leverage to create a Column C.

But, maybe we need to remember that the Blue Dog Democrats, hailing from conservative districts, simply face electoral constraints that many Democrats do not face. Or do they? Tomorrow, we'll explore the role that fear of the voters plays in shaping Blue Dog motivations.

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