A decade ago, they decided enough was enough.
After watching their party endure a dizzying fall from power under a liberal leadership, the band of centrist “yellow dog” Democrats were being choked blue by what they saw as the dominance of politicians on the far left and far right. And thus, the Blue Dog Coalition was born.
The band of two-dozen lawmakers — all centrist to conservative Democrats — were sick of serving in a House where they felt they lacked a seat at the table. In February 1995 they decided to carve out their own safety zone in the belief they would have greater say as a bloc of allies than as individual rank and filers.
“Our own leadership was ideologically repelling [our ideas],” recalled Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a Blue Dog founder. “It was that, combined with the Republican revolution.
“We banded together to create a brand for Democrats whose message was one of a pro-business, pro-defense, pro-growth mode, because Democrats wouldn’t accept our input.”
According to one aide, the group was formed after numerous meetings and discussions among Members that began during the 1994 Democratic majority and after the GOP was swept into power.
But the early stages of the effort were far from smooth. At that time, the Blue Dogs were struggling to find their identity. Many of the founding Members would soon switch parties, a list that includes Rep. Nathan Deal (Ga.) and since-departed Reps. Billy Tauzin (La.), Mike Parker (Miss.) and Greg Laughlin (Texas). Rep. Ralph Hall (Texas), an original Blue Dog, bolted to the GOP during the last Congress.
“The first several years it was quite an up and down road,” remarked one senior Blue Dog staffer. “Some of those originals ended up switching. It left a bitter taste. But [the group] evolved from that.
“They now stand up in the Caucus. People no longer have to wonder where our guys are coming from. Now they know.”
The Blue Dogs coalesced around, and continue to stick to, a core of tenets which reflect their political moderation, including social tolerance, fiscal responsibility and reduced government regulation. Their first major push on an issue came in the mid-1990s, as the group sought to bring the parties together on a welfare reform effort.
“Ours has been a movement away from the extreme political atmosphere here that results in nothing but ideological gridlock,” Tanner explained. “It doesn’t lend itself to the rigid ideology of the far left or the far right.”
The group didn’t earn credibility overnight, however. The Blue Dogs have spent the past 10 years proving their party loyalty and winning a voice in the Democratic Caucus.
“The Members who have stayed have shown they are committed to the Democratic Party despite the party-switching early on,” said a former Blue Dog aide. “They have also shown that if the Caucus listens to them, and moves toward them, they are willing to follow through and deliver.”
Beyond that, the Blue Dogs recognize they are members of a party yearning for victory and trying to connect with voters in what appears to be an increasingly conservative political landscape, and think their credentials in helping the party find its way speak for themselves. Of the 16 freshmen Democratic Members in the 109th, five have linked up with the Blue Dogs: Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), John Salazar (Colo.), Dan Boren (Okla.), Jim Costa (Calif.) and Charlie Melancon (La.). They likewise claim the party’s 2004 special election winners, Reps. Ben Chandler (La.) and Stephanie Herseth (S.D.).
“In recent years, the leadership has recognized the majority of the [Republican] seats picked up by Democrats are Blue Dog Members,” said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the group’s Whip. “We’ve done well. We’re responsible for Democratic gains, and that will continue to be the case.”
“It takes Blue Dogs to lead Congress in the right direction, and it takes Blue Dogs to win a red state,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), a group co-chairman.
Some Blue Dogs now hold powerful committee assignments and leadership has begun tapping them for key appointments. They are often invited to meet with leaders on budgetary and fiscal issues, and the party has now incorporated fiscal discipline into its message.
“We’ve moved the entire Democratic Party to fiscal responsibility,” Ross boasted.
The moderate group is for the first time also being sought out to bring their political skills to the broader ranks of Democrats, with leaders calling on them to speak to the Caucus on message and lend advice on winning in conservative districts.
“The Blue Dogs are central to the Democratic Party’s future,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.). “We’ve gotten to the point where we need to win in districts presently represented by Blue Dogs.”
“Blue Dog Democrats have had a significant and sorely needed impact over the past 10 years,” noted Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Their unbending resolve in the fight for sound budgeting and fiscal responsibility in Washington has been a moral compass for all of us who are concerned about the mountain of debt we are passing on to our children.”
The 35-Member group’s current empowerment comes despite a major hit to hits leadership last cycle, losing a founding father in Rep. Charlie Stenholm (Texas), two other leaders and several veterans. But the losses brought the advent of a new set of leaders many of who have only a couple terms under their belts.
Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.), who co-chairs the Blue Dog political action committee, said the group has been wise over the years in organizing itself to ensure that even if it loses key Members, it can still stay strong. He also noted that the group is “not about individuals,” but rather about a movement.
The Blue Dogs have continued to rotate their leaders each Congress with an eye on bringing younger Members into the fold. They also have a rigorous acceptance process, requiring prospective members to prove their moderate credentials and demonstrate that they believe in the values of fiscal responsibility and social tolerance.
“Saying you are conservative back home isn’t good enough,” Ross said.
While they are open to new approaches and will continue to evolve, the Blue Dogs don’t plan to make major shifts as they move ahead. Leaders say they are successful because they represent the views of a large share of the electorate, and are going to work even harder to get a moderate message on key policies beyond the Beltway.
“We have a set of principles,” said Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah), a new co-chairman. “It’s those basic principles of the Blue Dogs that continue to apply today. We don’t need to reinvent ourselves.”
“It’s never been sexy to be a centrist or a moderate,” added Rep. Dennis Cardoza (Calif.), another new leader. “But that’s where we are as a country.”