Colorful Critters

Regardless of stripe, Democrats need to stick together.

Political talk is littered with “critter” words. Elephants wave their trunks for Republicans; donkeys bray for Democrats. Teddy Roosevelt invented the Bull Moose Party. Teddy Kennedy became the “Lion of the Senate.” Lame ducks limp off the political stage. Hawks do battle while doves try to make peace.

This week I decided to investigate the meaning and merit of the common term “Blue Dog,” since our Idaho congressman, Walt Minnick, joined the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition when he reached Washington, D.C.

The 15-year-old organization now lists 55 Democratic members of Congress on the roster on its website. The coalition claims to have a “plan to balance the budget, cut spending and secure America’s future.” Pretty big order.

If I count the zeros correctly, the Blue Dog site gives the current estimate of the U.S. debt at over $13 trillion. We are then told the debt of each living U.S. citizen amounts to $42,350.18. Fortunately, it’s only a device to make the zeros understandable:it’s not collectible.

Generally, Blue Dog Democrats sound like middle-of-the-road conservatives who concentrate on the need for fiscal responsibility and accountability. Blue Dogs are not invested in partisan politics. Instead, they try to broker deals to bring the parties together rather than to do battle. Worthy goals, yes, but with prickly side effects.

To keep our political dogs in their own kennels, let me remind you that “Yellow Dog” Democrats are voters so partisan they will vote for any candidate, no matter how unsavory, running on the Democratic ticket.

One longtime member of the Blue Dog Coalition, Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee says, “Blue Dogs are simply Yellow Dogs that have been choked by extremes in both political parties to the point they have turned blue.” A variation of that explanation reads, “Blue Dogs are simply Yellow Dogs left out in the cold so long they have turned blue.”

The duller and more likely origins of this canine babble are the “Blue Dog” paintings of a Cajun artist named George Rodrigue, which hung in the offices of two Louisiana congressmen where the early meetings of these conservative Democratic legislators took place. In some mysterious way, the Blue Dog label transferred from the wall to the group.

Blue Dog Democrats can be stubbornly independent. Because they tend to question and to nitpick, they drive more liberal representatives crazy — which pleases their Republican colleagues, who at this point don’t want anything to happen that will help President Obama’s administration to succeed or even give the appearance of success.

“Blue Dogs are simply Yellow Dogs left out in the cold so long they have turned blue.”

Banding together to increase their influence is proving to be a smart tactic. And it was smart of Walt Minnick to jump right in the middle of the pack, introducing legislation as a part of the “Blue Dog Blueprint for Fiscal Reform.”

Walt Minnick has never been short of smarts. After graduating from Whitman College, Minnick moved onto the Harvard Business School, where he earned an M.B.A, and then to Harvard Law School to earn a J,D. He later worked in the Nixon administration for two and a half years. In October 1973, during the Watergate scandal, Minnick resigned in protest of the firing of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Walt has surprised and disappointed me — and many of my Democratic friends — with his votes rejecting health-care reform, cap-and-trade legislation and President Obama’s stimulus bills. But we shouldn’t have been surprised. He has never pledged complete allegiance to either the Republican or Democratic Party.

Fellow Yellow Dog Democrats are also conflicted about the endorsements Walt has received. He was asked to speak at the annual meeting of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. He was the lone Democrat to be named a Taxpayer Hero by the conservative Citizens Against Government Waste. He received a perfect score from the dread Club for Growth and an attaboy from the Tea Party PAC.

I understand Minnick’s need to reflect the values of his Idaho constituency that has grown ever more conservative in recent years. I remember vividly the sense of responsibility I felt as an elected legislator to represent all constituents.

I also remember the critter comment of Texan Jim Hightower: “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.”

But I have to give the last word to our son, Bruce Reed, who is on leave from his job as head of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. When I asked him for a statement of the value of the Blue Dogs, he sent me the following words:

“Blue Dogs are good for the Democratic Party and the country. They’re a constant, necessary reminder to Democrats that if we want to be a majority party, we have to earn it, not just preach to the choir. We’d be a lot better off as a country if we had more people like the Blue Dogs on both sides of the aisle, who are independent-minded, willing to work across party lines, and more interested in getting things done than in partisan gain.”

Mary Lou Reed is a former Democratic state senator from Coeur d’Alene.

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