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Can Blue Dogs Survive?

You don’t see a lot of blue dogs at your neighborhood park, and you won’t find many in the next Congress, either. As a political animal, the Blue Dog is in danger of following the Whig and the Mugwump into extinction.

Twenty-five moderately conservative House Democrats form today’s Blue Dog Coalition. Two of them, Pennsylvanians Jason Altmire and Tim Holden, were defeated in their party’s primary this week. Five more are retiring. Others must fight for their political lives in November in Republican-leaning districts where they will face an onslaught of GOP-allied super PAC money, which accurately targets them as vulnerable. When the smoke clears, just a dozen or so Dogs may remain.

Only two years ago, 54 Blue Dogs together formed one of the most powerful packs on Capitol Hill. They forced the inclusion of “pay as you go” rules in President Obama’s economic stimulus plan (not that it did much good, as very little has been paid for while the budget deficit has gone north of $1 trillion a year), and their opposition doomed liberal Democrats’ dreams of building health care reform around a single government payer.

The Blue Dogs are the proud, if beleaguered, holdouts in the center of U.S. politics - and their plight illustrates the big problem with holding the middle ground in a conflict. You are exposed to the crossfire, threatened by both sides.

This is precisely what decimated the Blue Dogs in the 2010 elections. While none lost a primary challenge that year (unlike this week’s unfortunate Pennsylvanians), a half-dozen Blue Dogs chose to retire or to run, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for other offices. Another 23 were defeated by Republicans in the general election, generally hurt by voter concern over Washington spending and over-reach, and particularly by a backlash against the health care law in conservative parts of the country. When the current Congress took office, the Blue Dog population had been cut in half. Next year, their numbers may be halved again.

Redistricting by Republican-controlled legislatures is getting a lot of the blame for the Blue Dogs’ plight. But gerrymandering and reapportionment affects all lawmakers, not just Blue Dogs. It has created equal or greater problems for liberal Democrats, especially in northern states that are losing seats to the Sun Belt.

The real problem is that the American political system is losing its capacity to support diverse species, including the Blue Dogs, but also the nearly vanished socially liberal Republican.

The process of choosing candidates through primary elections is democratically sound, but because most Americans are not interested enough to vote in primaries, the system exaggerates the power of each party’s most hard-core and committed base. For the Democrats, this is the labor vote; for Republicans, it is the social conservatives.

The Democratic Party has become the party of unionized labor, and particularly of the public sector work force, which represents the majority of all union workers today. They pay taxes, but taxes also pay them, so Democrats inevitably favor higher taxes - especially on people with higher incomes in the private sector. Labor-oriented Democrats exist in a sometimes uneasy coalition with environmentalists, minority groups and social liberals, but these groups of fellow travelers are prone to find themselves tossed overboard when their goals conflict with the labor base. This is why Democratic presidents signed and defended the Defense of Marriage Act, and why health care reform was amended to satisfy the demands of Catholic bishops for restrictions on abortion coverage.

The Republican Party has become the party of social conservatives, even this year, when presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and GOP leaders desperately want to keep voters focused on the economy and Obama’s fiscal record. As Jon Huntsman discovered, no Republican candidate can get past the starting gate without paying homage to the party base. The social conservatives also maintain a sometimes uneasy coalition with business interests, fiscal conservatives, free traders, xenophobes, and whites who feel disadvantaged by affirmative action, but the core of the party still revolves around social issues. A socially liberal but fiscally conservative Republican can be a strong general election candidate, but in most of the country, such an individual has no chance of getting past a GOP primary.

Like all creatures, a Blue Dog needs both a habitat and a home. Blue Dog habitat is a House district that is not solidly Republican, but where the labor vote is not too big and the minority population is not so large as to expect to be represented by one of its own. (Blue Dogs almost invariably come with white skins.) Such territory is increasingly scarce.

And the Blue Dog must make his political home in a party that tolerates occasional departures from labor-inspired orthodoxy. His party must be willing to consider him for leadership roles, so the Blue Dog can fetch enough bacon to win his constituents’ favor. But other Democrats increasingly view Blue Dogs as, at best, a necessary evil, to be accommodated only insofar as they are useful in putting a real Democrat - like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - in power.

The Blue Dogs don’t have a natural home in the Republican Party, either. Former Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama discovered this after he switched from the Democrats to the Republicans in 2009. He was defeated in a Republican primary the next year. The same thing happened, more prominently, to former Sen. Arlen Specter, a definite non-Blue Dog (they only exist in the House, not the Senate) who went from the Republicans to the Democrats, provided a key vote for Obama’s health care overhaul, and was promptly defeated in a Democratic primary. Each party’s orthodox priesthood viscerally opposes converts at the national level, even though party-switching is fairly common in lower-profile state and local offices.

I’m going to miss those Blue Dogs yipping on the House floor. They were a remnant of an era when officeholders occasionally voted against their party lines. But don’t blame the Dogs, or the legislators who changed their districts, or the Democratic Party, which can’t decide whether to keep them at the table or banish them to the doghouse. If in your heart you are a socially tolerant Republican or a fiscally conservative Democrat, and you don’t belong to your natural party or vote in its primaries, blame yourself. You can’t protect the political environment by staying home and watching TV.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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