POLITICS
09/03/2009 03:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Divining The Motives Of The Blue Dogs, Part Two

Yesterday, we began our four part attempt to wildly speculate on what's been driving the Blue Dog Democrats in their mysterious mission to throw a monkey wrench in the health care reform works. We began by pondering whether or not the Blue Dogs were motivated by authentic principles. I think we can all agree that it was a pretty hilarious thing to consider!

Now we get more serious. The Blue Dog Democrats are, first and foremost, elected representatives and public servants, and if they share one thing in common with their colleagues on both sides of the aisle, is that every day, they all wake up and go to work attempting to achieve the same thing: getting themselves re-elected.

Anyone passingly familiar with the mythology of Blue Dog Democrats knows that their path to re-election is supposedly fraught with obstacles, chief among them being an electoral base that tilts center-right. Because of this, the Blue Dogs often find themselves having to straddle political lines out of pure survival.

Or do they? Let's examine whether the Blue Dogs have been slow-rolling health care reform because...

The Blue Dogs are always facing the wrath of voters.

So, the typical Blue Dog story goes like this. They represent "swing districts," whose constituents, while amenable to electing a Democrat, aren't amenable to electing...say, Dennis Kucinich. And while Blue Dogs can, of course, make use of all the structural advantages that incumbents rely upon to get re-elected, they know that their primary vulnerability is any demonstration of...let's say, Kucinichiness. And since reform opponents in the health care debate are so quick to raise the specter of TEH SOCIALISM and TEH DEFICITS, it puts the Blue Dogs in a bit of a tough spot.

So, these guys always need to be provided with political cover from their fellows, so that they can avoid being painted as leftist. In return, the Blue Dogs swell the ranks of the Democratic caucus, providing larger majorities. That's the bargain. A lost seat is a blow to the majority, and so the Blue Dogs can hold the rest of their caucus hostage by forcing them to sympathize with all of the electoral risks they are taking.

But are these Blue Dogs really that vulnerable? The Guardian's Michael Tomasky recently undertook the complicated task of scrutinizing the Blue Dogs' electoral reality, and it yielded some intriguing results.

I used this extremely handy CQ website breaking presidential results down by House district. Here's my methodology:

1. I made a list of the 49 red-district House Democrats.

2. I recorded their margins of victory.

3. I recorded John McCain's margin in all 49 districts.

4. I matched result 2 against result 3 to get something I call the MVM -- the Margin Versus McCain. For example, if Democrat Ms. Byron beat Republican Mr. Shelley by 10 points, and McCain won that district by 20 points, Ms. Byron's MVM is -10. If Democrat Mr. Jagger beat Republican Mr. Richards by 25 points, and McCain won that district by 10 points, Mr. Jagger's MVM is +15.

This MVM is an important number because it matches the Democrat's personal vote-getting strength (his or her victory margin) against the intensity of the general Republican inclination of the district (McCain's margin over Obama).

Tomasky says, "That is a key number. I guarantee you it's how politicians think. Every one of these 49 Democrats knows precisely how Republican his or her district is." And that, Tomasky adds, "dictates voting behavior." And on health care reform specifically, Tomasky says, "I'd be a lot more afraid, say, to support a public option if I had a low or negative MVM.

But here are, for example, the seven Blue Dogs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the "MVM" rating that Tomasky assigns to each:

Mike Ross (Ark.), +67
Baron Hill (Ind.), +18
Charlie Melancon (La.), +76
Jim Matheson (Utah), +10
John Barrow (Ga.), +41 (*not included on Tomasky's list)
Bart Gordon (Tenn.), +49
Zach Space (Ohio), +12

As you can see, it's a mixed bag. Some Blue Dogs have an arguable claim to vulnerability. But many do not. If you look at Tomasky's entire list, you'll see that the mortal terror that these representatives supposedly live in -- never knowing if the voters are going to abandon them -- is substantially exaggerated. Tomasky takes it further:

You'll notice, if you're familiar with the current debates and with some of these people, the interesting fact that some of the more vocal Blue Dogs are among those with the most comfortable margins. As I noted in a post the other day, Mike Ross of Arkansas is a leading healthcare Blue Dog. His MVM is a gaudy +67. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, who helped weaken the cap and trade bill, has an MVM of +41.

[...]

Yes, some Democrats have to be very careful and not be seen as casting a liberal vote. But they're a comparatively small number. A very clear majority of these people have won by large enough margins that it sure seems to me they could survive one controversial vote if they some backbone into it.

Tomasky's bottom-line is that the real story here is that the Blue Dogs have succeeded in "sell[ing] this story line to Washington reporters who've never been to these exurban and rural districts and can be made to believe the worst caricatures...People need to start challenging them on this."

Consider it challenged! But then, if true, raw, animal fear of not getting re-elected isn't what's driving the Blue Dogs to muck up the health care reform debate, what is? Potentially, there's an obvious answer to that. So, in our next installment, we'll examine the extent to which cash rules the Blue Dogs's world.

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