Will that Blue Dog hunt in the South?

There's some significant news today out of Washington regarding an upcoming proposal by Democrats in Congress to establish a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq:
WASHINGTON - In a direct challenge to President Bush, House Democrats are advancing legislation requiring the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the fall of next year.

Democratic officials who described the measure said the timetable would be accelerated - to the end of 2007 - if the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki does not meet goals for providing Iraq's security.

The conditions, described as tentative until presented to the Democratic rank and file Thursday, would be added to legislation providing nearly $100 billion the Bush administration has requested for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Pelosi and the leadership have struggled in recent days to come up with an approach on the war that would satisfy liberals reluctant to vote for continued funding without driving away more moderate Democrats unwilling to be seen as tying the hands of military commanders.
This is an interesting development that will perhaps silence critics who say the new Democratically controlled Congress is all bark and no bite, citing the recent non-binding resolution disapproving of the troop surge in Iraq.

In a related backstory, there's this somewhat slanted AP article about the Blue Dog Democrats coalition and their growing influence in the House:
WASHINGTON - When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faced scorn from fellow Democrats during a recent closed-door meeting for not moving more aggressively on Iraq, it was conservative Blue Dogs - her ideological opposites - who rose to defend her.

The unlikely support reflected an emerging dynamic in the House, where the 43 right-of-center fiscal hawks are increasingly asserting their power, working to moderate the policies and image of a party with a liberal base and leaders to match.


With Democrats in charge again, the Blue Dogs have played a key role in halting an emerging plan to place strict conditions on war funding. Their revolt helped beat back that proposal, by Pelosi ally John Murtha, D-Pa. Leaders are now considering a watered-down version.

They started the year with a major victory, when Democrats adopted strict "pay-as-you-go" budget rules that Blue Dogs have advocated for years to block measures that would deepen the deficit.

Soon after, their insistence that a catchall spending measure stay within strict budget limits helped Democrats pass the bill along with boosts for veterans, health research and education - handing the party its only substantive win so far this year.


House leaders now see the support of the group - particularly its nine freshman members, whose victories over Republican incumbents in conservative districts helped to hand Democrats the House - as a prerequisite for any measure they bring before the House, senior aides said.
So who are the Blue Dog Democrats? From their website:
Taken from the South's longtime description of a party loyalist as one who would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the ballot as a Democrat, the "Blue Dog" moniker was taken by members of The Coalition because their moderate-to-conservative-views had been "choked blue" by their party in the years leading up to the 1994 election.

The Coalition was formed in the 104th Congress as a policy-oriented group to give moderate and conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives a common sense, bridge-building voice within the institution. Most agree that, since then, the Blue Dogs have successfully injected a moderate viewpoint into the Democratic Caucus, where group members now find greater receptiveness to their opinions. In fact, the continuing political success of "Blue Pups" in the 1998, 2000, and 2002 elections points to the public's approval of the centrist, fiscally responsible message represented by The Coalition.

The Coalition has been particularly active on fiscal issues, relentlessly pursuing a balanced budget and then protecting that achievement from politically popular "raids" on the budget. Past Coalition budgets have won the endorsement of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition and multiple newspaper and magazine editorials. As one column pointed out, the Blue Dogs have proven that "common sense, conservative economics and compassion aren't necessarily mutually exclusive."
They come from all over, and as you might expect the South is well represented among their membership with Representatives from Alabama, Arkansas (2), Florida (2), Georgia (4), Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina (2), and Tennessee (3). (They're not all from Red States, though. California and New York are represented as well.)

So are the Blue Dogs a good thing for progressive politics in the South? It's hard to say. Some might say they more faithfully represent their constituency and that it's the constituency -- not the politicians -- in need of enlightenment to overcome generations of "conventional wisdom" that keeps the South last in education and first in poverty. Others may take a more pragmatic approach and say that the moderate centrist approach is the only way a Democrat can get elected in the South.

Here in Tennessee, five of our nine delegates to the House are Democrats. Of those, three are Blue Dog Democrats.

(Rep. Harold Ford Jr. was one, too, before giving up his seat to run for the Senate. His replacement, Congressman Steve Cohen, is about as far left of a Blue Dog as you are likely to find anywhere. He's a pro-choice, anti-war, gay rights supporting Jewish white guy who would be just as at home representing San Francisco as Memphis and who was elected in a landslide by a majority black district. Don't be looking for him to join the Blue Dogs any time soon.)

So are the Tennessee Blue Dogs populist, pragmatic politicians representing the interests of working people in their district, or triangulating Republican-lite candidates packaged for easy consumption in a Red State? I haven't followed all of them very closely, but I am familiar with one, so let's take a look at his record.

Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-TN04) was elected in 2002 to replace Republican Van Hilleary, who gave up his seat to run for Governor against Democrat Phil Bredesen (who trounced him).

Davis' district, which is right next door to two Republican dominated East Tennessee districts represented by conservative Congressmen Jimmy Duncan (R-TN02) and Zach Wamp (R-TN03), is mostly rural and covers 10,000 square miles -- nearly one quarter of the state geographically -- and includes the home town of WWI sharpshooter hero turned conscientious objector Sgt. Alvin C. York.

Rep. Davis is a smart politician and a great speaker who can work up a crowd like an old-time country preacher, talking frequently about health care, education, and jobs.

We ran into him on the Harold Ford Jr. campaign trail at, of all places, the Annual Congressman Jimmy Duncan Barbecue.

(This event is held every year in Knoxville for Duncan's constituents. Everyone in his district, Republican, Democrat, or otherwise, is invited for free barbecue and entertainment. The path to statewide office in Tennessee runs through the Jimmy Duncan Barbecue, and indeed Governor Phil Bredesen and Harold Ford Jr. and local Democratic candidates were there, along with their Republican opponents.)

Not knowing which side we were on, Rep. Davis was quick to assure us that he and Harold Ford Jr. "were not going up there to Washington to raise your taxes or take away your guns and your Bibles." He says it with a twinkle in his eye that makes us wonder if he's just pulling our leg or whether it's something he thinks we're really worried about. Earlier that day he had given a rousing speech to hundreds of students and other Ford supporters at a rally on the U.T. Campus that was covered by MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell for Hardball with Chris Matthews.

Anyway, here is Rep. Davis' record on the Democrat's First 100 Hours agenda, compared to Rep. Jimmy Duncan's (source: thomas.loc.gov):
  • Ethics Reform Title 1, Rules: Duncan: Yes, Davis: Yes

  • Ethics Reform Title 2, Ethics: Duncan: Yes, Davis: NV

  • Ethics Reform Title 3, Civility: Duncan: Yes, Davis: Yes

  • Ethics Reform Title 4, Fiscal responsibility (PAYGO and earmark reforms): Duncan: No, Davis: Yes

  • Ethics Reform Title 5, Misc.: Duncan: No, Davis: Yes

  • Enhanced Intelligence Oversight: Duncan: No, Davis: Yes

  • 9/11 Commission Recommendations: Duncan: No, Davis: Yes

  • Minimum Wage: Duncan: Yes, Davis: Yes

  • Stem Cell Research: Duncan: No, Davis: No

  • Medicare Prescription Drug Negotiation: Duncan: No, Davis: Yes

  • College Student Relief Act: Duncan: Yes, Davis: Yes

  • Energy Alternatives Act: Duncan: No, Davis: Yes
As you can see, Duncan crossed over more often than Davis, and Davis pretty much toed the party line except for stem cell research. (We're not sure of the reason for the "not voting" on ethics reform.)

And here's how Davis and Duncan square off on other recent key Congressional votes (source: Washington Post voting record ):
  • Federal Marriage Amendment: Duncan: Yes, Davis: Yes

  • Non-binding resolution disapproving of Iraq troop surge: Duncan: Yes, Davis: Yes

  • Military Commissions Act allowing President to interpret Geneva Conventions: Duncan: Yes, Davis: Yes

  • Estate Tax Relief: Duncan: Yes, Davis: Yes

  • Extending the Bush tax cuts: Duncan: Yes, Davis: Yes

  • $40 billion in cuts to welfare, child support and student loans: Duncan: Yes, Davis: No

  • Ban on cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of detainees: Duncan: Yes, Davis: Yes

  • Employee Free Choice Act: Duncan: No, Davis: Yes

  • CAFTA: Duncan: Yes, Davis: No

  • Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act: Duncan: Yes, Davis: Yes
Again we see Duncan crossing over on the Iraq resolution (his long-standing opposition to the war is based on his conservative non-interventionist beliefs), but here we see Davis crossing the aisle on fiscal matters such as tax cuts, and GOP red meat issues such as marriage and immigration. But Davis supports labor and opposes trade deals that are business friendly at the expense of American workers, and also shows his support for social programs.

(On the anti-gay marriage amendment, Rep. Davis voted for it presumably because a) he knew it wouldn't go anywhere, and b) that's what the folks back home in his deeply religious rural district expected him to do. But you may recall Rep. Davis' famous proposal to include a provision prohibiting adultery and divorce and also making divorce and adultery automatic disqualifications for elected office, saying that if Congress was serious about protecting marriage then the amendment didn't go far enough. The media and liberal bloggers didn't get the joke and piled on, and a spokesperson eventually had to explain that he was being satirical to make a point -- that Congress was wasting time on a partisan election-year political stunt when they should be addressing important issues such as the economy and the war in Iraq. Judging from the 2006 election results, apparently they should have listened.)

So it's a mixed bag, but overall a fairly progressive record for a U.S. Representative from the South. I haven't checked the voting records of the other Blue Dogs, but if Rep. Davis is at all representative the South could do a lot worse.