Hello! This week, for fun, we've been speculating like crazy about what motivates this species canis puteulanus to make so much noise. Maybe it's because of deeply held beliefs. Perhaps it's simply a product of electoral uncertainty. And one cannot dismiss the fact that lobbyists, especially those in the health care industry, have showered them with untold piles of money, which, in politics, are better than principles and more impressive than voters. All three possibilities have their compelling aspects. But what if none of that matters as much as the opportunity to garner a little respect, for a change? Maybe the mystery is just this simple...
The Blue Dogs just want some attention.
Right now, Congress only garners any attention by asserting its will against the White House. Members of the GOP do, obviously, and for their trouble they still get their share of the news hole. The trouble is that their numbers are so few that they don't have any practical power over the agenda. And their opposition is taken for granted.
So the only party capable of asserting their will over the White House is the Democrats. But if you were paying attention to the leaders in both the House and Senate during the 2008 campaign, their standard pitch to voters was to give them the majorities they needed to enact Obama's policies.
As a result, the only way to really get attention is to be a Democrat who defies the Democratic leadership. The Blue Dogs have figured this out.
In short, this is a rare opportunity for the Blue Dogs to actually matter. They get to emerge from back-bench obscurity, and gain attention and favor from President Obama. They also garner enormous media exposure: front page appearances, cover stories, air time on cable news, and op-eds agogo. Consider this: a cursory search of the Washington Post reveals that Arkansas Blue Dog Mike Ross has been in 36 stories in a recent two-week period. As near as I can tell, all are about health care reform. Yet for the first five months of 2009, Ross only appears in two Post stories, one in which he's depicted as trying to preserve pet agriculture programs from Obama's budget cutting, and another about an congressional delegation trip to Brussels (longtime readers may remember that story!)
And don't forget they get to come home to their constituents and simultaneously express concern over health care shortfalls and escalating deficits, safe in the knowledge that the figureheads of the party, and the overall caucus, are going to end up taking the hit for both.
Whether or not you can ultimately pin a watered-down health care bill on the Blue Dogs, one thing is certain: they have used the backdrop of this bill to demonstrate that they can get what they want out of the legislative sausage making, regardless of whether you and I get what we need. They've gotten the ear of the White House, they've swung a big stick with their caucus, they've earned plenty of face-time with the press, and enlarged their campaign war chests to a fare-thee-well. The system works!
What does it mean for the rest of us? Well, even if you can't ultimately blame the Blue Dogs for killing health care, you should watch where they pick their spots in the future, and pay attention to where they threaten the same dilatory and dilutive effects.
Sometimes, after all the sturm und drang, the Blue Dogs will find face-saving ways to extricate themselves from the conflict and vote alongside the White House, citing some picayune policy shift as the hard-won compromise they were fighting for all along. Other times, they'll muck up effective policy. But always, they'll do what it takes to allay their fears, enrich their coffers, and put themselves in the spotlight.
Huff Post intern Stuart Whatley shared a great line with me that summed up the Blue Dog reality: "All bark, no block, but it doesn't mean they won't piss on it first." This August, it's best to keep a watch out for raised hind legs.