In January, 1983, when John McCain returned to Washington as a freshman Congressman elected from his “home state” of Arizona, he entered a U.S. House of Representatives that was infested with Boll Weevils. Named for the pesky critters that eviscerated the cotton crop across the South during the Dust Bowl years, Boll Weevils were the gaggle of largely Southern conservative Democrats who joined with the Republican Minority to form what political scientists called the “conservative coalition” in Congress that effectively stymied more liberal legislation.
A quarter century later, John McCain might find himself at the center of a political dynamic similar to the scenario he faced as a freshman: facing a lopsided Democratic congressional majority Democrats whose ranks are swelled by an influx of moderate to conservative Democrats who occasionally wreak havoc on their leadership — often at the behest of the Republican president.
The Boll Weevils included in their ranks some unsavory, anachronistic characters. Today’s more conservative Democrats, the Blue Dogs, are smoother and savvier; there’s not a single avowed segregationist in their ranks, nor any conspiracy-crazed buffoons like, say, the late Rep. Larry McDonald of Georgia, who served as president of the John Birch Society when he went down with Korean Airlines flight 007 in 1983. And unlike their forebears, the Blue Dogs’ avowed common credo rests upon fealty to fiscal discipline rather than the inchoate conservatism that bound the Boll Weevils together.
Although the fabled Reagan tax cuts so revered by small government types were pushed through with Boll Weevil support — over the protests of Congressional Democratic leaders like Speaker Tip O’Neil of “Taxachusetts” — President Reagan and the Boll Weevils made a pact with the devil. Most of these Southern Democrats were unabashed pork barrelers: social conservatives and fervent anti-Communists more interested in bashing the dual menace of Commies and “perverts” than in cutting the government programs they shamelessly hyped back home.
Reagan sought vastly increased military spending with his anti-Soviet defense buildup, a position wholeheartedly shared by the Boll Weevils. Tax cuts they would abide by — some, like then-Democratic Rep. Phil Gramm of Texas, became sincere expositors of the idea — but they could not endorse significant domestic spending cuts. Thus, for the small-government faithful, many of whom view Reagan as an icon, the Boll Weevils’ legacy is a mixed one. During the Weevil era, Reagan acquiesced to inflated domestic budgets to get through voracious military spending, including many programs and weapon systems made obsolete soon thereafter when the Berlin Wall fell.
Crucially, and unlike the nebulous Boll Weevils, the Blue Dogs’ are formally organized — their group is officially known as The Blue Dog Coalition — with caucus rules, task forces, a whip and co-chairs assigned for administration, policy, and communications. They are considering loosening their membership cap — imposed to keep the caucus more cohesive on floor votes and hold together a solid voting bloc as a bargaining chip — to expand their ranks. That infrastructure makes them a more formidable legislative force to be reckoned with — and one that’s not going away, either. The Blue Dogs are nurturing new recruits, endorsing like-minded Democrats in competitive districts across the country, from Alabama to Minnesota.
The Blue Dogs are already proving their bite might be as fearsome as their bark. Taking on the new failure to pay for a new GI entitlement in this year’s phenomenally popular veteran’s bill is a move that shows both will and confidence, especially for Blue Dogs, many of whom represent districts heavy with military personnel.
Stuart Rothenberg has postulated that a McCain victory — even though he might be the only candidate to emerge from this year’s nomination battle with a fighting chance at saving the White House for the GOP — might not be in the GOP’s longer term interests. Rothenberg speculates that McCain’s penchant for cross-partisan coalition-building may not merely minimize the Democratic leadership’s influence. Instead, by cobbling together coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis, often relying on Blue Dog Democrats and the few “Gypsy Moth” Republicans (the GOP’s liberal but equally destructive insect counterpart to the Democrats’ conservative Boll Weevil) still in office, he can circumvent Republican leadership as well.
Early signs pointing to a Democratic blowout in this fall’s congressional elections, however, might not necessarily be the best news for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Democrats have won almost every seat they can that will return a reliably liberal Democrat, so large Democrats gains will almost assuredly moderate the tenor of the Democratic caucus — perhaps bolstering the power of Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, who enjoys a much more cordial relationship with the Blue Dogs.
If their savvy maneuvering on the GI bill is any indication, the promise — or threat, as a retiring liberal Old Bull like Rep. Major Owens (D-Brooklyn) sees it — of the Blue Dogs seems real.
Prospects for cross-partisan cooperation in the next Congress got a shot in the arm when Democratic primary voters in Northern Virginia’s 11th CD soundly rejected a comeback bid by former Rep. Leslie Byrne. The primary victor, Fairfax County Executive Gerry Connolly, is favored in another suburban seat that Republicans have all but ceded to Democrats upon an incumbent’s retirement — in this case, former House Republican campaign committee chair Thomas M. Davis, III.
Byrne previously served a single term before getting swept away by the then-incumbent Fairfax County Executive Davis in the Republican tsunami of ’94. Byrne made a name for herself by demanding the scalp of committee chairs who dared defy the newly inaugurated Democratic president on his budget proposal and wasteful “stimulus” spending package, arguing that congressional Democrats ought to exhibit unflinching loyalty to their first partisan cohort to occupy the Oval Office in 12 years. Byrne had it out particularly for then-House Agriculture Committee Chairman Charlie Stenholm of Abilene, Texas. Stenholm led skeptical Southern Democrats in negotiations with the Clinton Administration (former Rep. Tim Penny of Minnesota, perhaps Congress’ last true Jeffersonian Democrat, spoke on behalf of similarly skeptical Northern, Midwestern and Western House Democrats), and, according to budget watchdogs, exacted a less fiscally disastrous bill.
Byrne derided “sunshine Democrats” who bolted too quickly and kowtowed to constituents when a tough vote came up. But when the White House legislative affairs office pulled out all the stops to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, Byrne spurned them by voting against the bill, against both her president and the interests of her tech-booming district. (It’s difficult to imagine Fairfax booster Connolly making the same mistake.)
The whole affair got wrapped up in institutional issues and efforts to keep patched together what was then a far less cohesive House Democratic Caucus, and then-Speaker Tom Foley and then-Majority Leader Dick Gephardt nipped her plan in the bud. Stenholm went on after the 1994 Democratic debacle to forge The Coalition, the Blue Dogs’ formal caucus and remained, arguably, its leading light until he was done in by Tom DeLay’s Texas redistricting shenanigans in the 2002 election.
Thankfully, Leslie Byrne won’t be setting foot on the House floor for the 111th Congress, but we may see a lot more “Blue Pups,” in the mold of Charlie Stenholm. While the two conservative Democrats who took heavily Republican Deep South seats in special elections this spring might have been expected to vote against the Democrat’s budget resolution, joining them was Rep. Don Foster, the Democrat who snared former Republican House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s seat in March. That Chicago area seat is affluent, suburban, and trending Democratic, much like Northern Virginia’s 11th. Foster’s vote for fiscal discipline coupled with the rejection of Byrne offers hope that Democrats elected from suburban districts by voters who can’t abide by Republican social conservatism might be ready to pull the reins on an overly activist Democratic economic agenda in the 111th.
–John Vaught LaBeaume edits the blog ElectionDissection.com.