April 26, 2012
Democrats have spent most of the last three years lamenting the radical nature of their opponents. This began when Tea Party protests broke out in the spring of 2009 in response to an on-air rant by CNBC’s Rick Santelli, and protesters began flooding town-hall meetings held by Democrats in Congress to argue over Obamacare. They attempted to paint the grassroots demonstrations as “Astroturf” funded by wealthy businessmen such as the Koch brothers – and they kept right on arguing about it as they suffered the worst mid-term results in 72 years, losing control of the House in the 2010 elections.
They have made the same argument throughout the Republican presidential nomination fight. With the refrain, “Ronald Reagan couldn’t win the nomination of the Republican Party” repeated so often that it began to sound like a mantra, liberal pundits and Democrats in office claimed that each Republican presidential candidate was more radical than the next. When it became apparent that Mitt Romney would win the Republican nomination, the Barack Obama campaign and the DNC shifted their rhetoric against Romney from claiming that he was too flexible to have any core beliefs to warning voters that Romney was the most committed conservative radical since Barry Goldwater.
That’s the kind of spin that could give people whiplash. However, primaries held in key Congressional races on Tuesday as well as announced retirements in the House make clear that Democrats suffer from another affliction: projection. Their party has coalesced around a hard-Left administration and has shed its moderates over the past two years as a result.
Consider the state of the Blue Dog Democrat coalition in the House. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats ran moderates for swing districts held by Republicans after the GOP lost the confidence of the electorate, and won dozens of seats to take control of Congress. They promised fiscal discipline and a moderate approach to social issues, and voters assumed they would apply the brakes on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s more doctrinaire liberal impulses. At the height of their power, the Blue Dog caucus had 54 members and wielded considerable clout – or so voters assumed.
The Obamacare debate stripped that fantasy from the electorate. Instead of forcing the Obama administration to moderate its approach to health-insurance reform, the Blue Dogs rolled over and played dead. Rep. Bob Stupak (D-MI) resisted for a while by blocking the progress of the PPACA bill in the House with an amendment that would have prohibited federal funds from paying for abortion coverage, but got pushed into accepting a meaningless executive order from Obama instead. In 2010, voters reduced the Blue Dog coalition by half after it became obvious that they could not stop the leftward march of the Pelosi-led House, and Democrats lost control of the lower chamber as a result.
That didn’t teach Democratic leadership anything, as it turns out. Now it’s not just angry voters whittling away the Blue Dogs that remain – it’s the Democrats themselves.
Pennsylvania may well be a presidential swing state in November. Barack Obama lost the state in the 2008 primary to Hillary Clinton, but won it in the general election despite his assessment of voters there as “bitter” and apt to “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” Yet Democrats in two House primaries this week forced out so-called Blue Dog moderate Democrats in favor of union-backed hardliners.
Rep. Mark Critz had to run against moderate Rep. Jason Altmire in PA-12 after redistricting merged a small part of Critz’ more liberal district into Altmire’s. Critz edged Altmire by four points -- with substantial help from union allies, both in volunteer help and over $80,000 in primary-campaign funds. Altmire had barely held off Republican challenger Keith Rothful in 2010 by running on his moderate positions on health care and fiscal issues. Republicans are licking their chops at the chance to run Rothfus against Critz and the Obama administration policies Critz backs.
The Keystone State also lost its longest-serving House member, Blue Dog Rep. Tim Holden. Holden has won ten terms in Congress, but lost by 14 points to Matt Cartwright, a personal-injury attorney who spent $400,000 of his own money to run to Holden’s left. Redistricting played a much larger part in Holden’s loss, as Holden’s old district consisted of a slightly Republican electorate (R+4). That changed to a dramatically Democratic district (D+24), and Cartwright hammered Holden for being insufficiently supportive of Obamacare, and posing himself as “an old-school Roosevelt Democrat.” Republicans are unlikely to beat Cartwright with the new boundaries, and that means that the House Democratic caucus will get pushed further to the left.
Retirements have also weakened the Blue Dogs, especially in their leadership positions. Three of the four Representatives with official titles in the caucus are retiring this term: Heath Shuler (D-NC), Dan Boren (D-OK), and Mike Ross (D-AR).
Three more Blue Dogs are targeted by Republicans in the upcoming election – Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, and Jim Matheson in Utah. National Journal’s Shane Goldmacher points out that if all three lose, “only four of the 34 House Democrats who voted against Obama’s health care law would return to Congress in 2013.”
One party has indeed gotten more ideologically rigid and extreme. It isn’t the one who nominated Mitt Romney to run in November, either. It’s the party that is busy shrieking that Romney is the second coming of Barry Goldwater. How far to the left does a party have to be to think that?