The Midterms, Blue Dogs and Values

November 4, 2010

There’s an interesting article on Huffington Post about the fate of the many “Blue Dogs” – the conservative faction of the Democrats mostly in the Southern States – who have been “smashed” in the mid terms.

The Blue Dog Democrats were "crushed" in the midterms.

… one group hit especially hard was the Blue Dog Coalition, with half of its members losing their seats.

The Blue Dogs, a coalition of moderate to conservative Democrats in the House, have consistently frustrated their more progressive colleagues and activists within the party, especially during the health care debate. Blue Dog members pushed to limit the scope and the cost of the legislation and resisted some of the mandates of the bill. Last summer, seven of the eight Blue Dogs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee even threatened to block health care reform unless it met their cost requirements.

Other areas where Blue Dogs have helped put the brakes on ambitious progressive priorities are global warming measures and legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize.

This contrasts to Harry Reid, one of the main Republican targets in the mid terms – who is a notorious liberal hated by the conservatives as Obama’s “partner” in crime:

Republicans said for months that if the Nevada Senate race was a referendum on Harry Reid, the unpopular Majority Leader would lose. Reid didn’t let that happen. He adeptly painted opponent Sharron Angle as an extremist immediately after she won her primary – and proceeded to make the contest as much about her awkward and unconventional statements as Reid’s own troubles.

Then he deployed his secret weapon: a powerful turnout machine that brought Democratic and Hispanic voters out to the polls in droves.

I can’t comment on the campaign machines of the Blue Dogs. However, it is clear to me that voters in the “Blue Dog” states, when given the opportunity to vote for a real Republican or a fake “Republocrat”, seem to have by and large chosen the real Republican.

Similarly, in California where Republican big business candidates Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman (who spent millions of their own fortunes to get elected) lost to “liberals” Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown. While the commentary points to the flaws of the Republican candidates (Fiorina too right-wing, Whitman too inexperienced), the fact is that both Boxer and Brown (Senate and Governor candidates) ran a straight campaign based on solid progressive Democrat values.

This demonstrates in my view why it’s important for progressive parties to resist the calls to drift to the right. We saw in the UK that after a decade of Blairism, the electorate preferred real Conservatives to the Tory-lite New Labour. Similarly, when Democrats campaigned on progressive values and policies, and made a principled stand, they are rewarded by voters.


Comments

  1. Tim - November 5, 2010 at 12:22 pm -

    "We saw in the UK that after a decade of Blairism, the electorate preferred real Conservatives to the Tory-lite New Labour."

    I honestly can't understand how you could reach this conclusion. The left wing condemns the Labour Party to close to 20 years in the electoral wilderness thanks to the stridency of Foot and Benn. Blair and New Labour emerge, modernise the party and win three consecutive elections (including one of the biggest wins ever).

    Yet you think the lesson from this that voters don't like centerist political parties?

    If the 1983 UK election isn't the perfect case study of what happens when a party disregards the voters and pursues an extreme ideological agenda, I don't know what is.

    • Alexander White - November 5, 2010 at 12:40 pm -

      New Labor in 1996 was very different to post-Iraq New Labor.

      Blair did the right thing by modernising Labor and creating a tightly focused, disciplined set of election policies and campaign to beat Major. However, there is an argument that Blair and co went too far to the right, on issues like Iraq, civil liberties, asylum seekers and deregulation of the financial markets.

      Blair was a great Prime Minister, and his enduring legacy in my view is that he brought peace to Northern Ireland. However, "triangulation" and the third way is not just about tacking to the right – it is also about defending the progressive flank.

      Blairism in the last few years of his prime-ministership strayed into the centre-right ground and away from the centre-left. The UK election shows that the majority of people in Britain want a centre-left government. This is why the Lib Dem-Tory coalition is so bad – Britons wanted Labor, but moderated with a more "liberal" approach on some key issues.

  2. Tim - November 5, 2010 at 12:49 pm -

    Iraq, Civil Liberties and Asylum Seekers weren't issues in UK Labour losing in 2010. These were all issues that were prominent in the 2005 election….. an election that New Labour won.

    I don't think the 2010 Labour Party is noticeably different to the 1997 iteration. Labour came to power promising big spending on govt services combined with increased flexibility and modernisation of service provision. It delivered on that. The issues that the UK left get up tight about have never had a significant impact in the ballot box.

    Labour lost in 2010, not because it had moved to far to the right, but because the Tories had moved so far to the left that they had taken the centrist middle ground from Labour. The Govt was too old and tired to respond to this development effectively.

    The key to re-election in the UK is again and unsurprisingly, re-taking the middle ground on issues that matter to voters ie jobs, the economy and govt service delivery. It's unclear to me how moving to the left on symbolic political issues (rather than issues that swinging voters really care about) will assist with this.

    • Alexander White - November 5, 2010 at 1:47 pm -

      On Iraq:

      Mr Balls, the former schools secretary, told The Daily Telegraph that the invasion had been a "mistake" for which Britain paid a heavy price while Ed Miliband, the former climate change secretary, said it had resulted in a "catastrophic loss of trust" for Labour.

      On 1980s v 2010:

      David Miliband added that after the bitter in-fighting of the 1980s, New Labour had created a model of leadership based on "discipline not dialogue" which was now in need of fundamental change. "It was in some ways necessary, but it contained the seeds of its own destruction," he said.

      On drifting too far to the right:

      Another leadership contender, Andy Burnham, the former health secretary, told the conference: "We [Labour] let a perception grow that we were in favour of wealth of any kind and with no limits on it whatsoever, that we were somehow in awe of wealth and of business, and we didn't have the ability to stand up and say what was right and what was wrong," he said.

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politi

      In the end, Labour's core constituency either didn't turn out (because they were disaffected with major bad policy decisions, Iraq, economy, etc) or voted for another party (e.g. Lib Dems). In a voluntary system like the UK and US, you need to get the centre-ground while not abandoning your base. UK Labour drifted away from its base to the right. It's base ended up staying home or lodgind a protest vote.

      In Australia, with a compulsory system, we run the risk of alienating our natural supporters (workers and progressives) in a ruthless attempt to get swing voters. As we saw in 2010, taken too far this simply creates more margain Labor seats – this time to The Greens Party. Although they have no choice but to vote, Labor's progressive "base" has shown a willingness to "swing" (or "protest) to the Greens Party. In Labor-Liberal contests, this doesn't matter. In Labor-Greens contests it does.

  3. Tim - November 5, 2010 at 1:56 pm -

    Do you think that comments made during a ballot of Labour Party members might pander to the prejudices of Labour Party members?

    Again, do you have any data that shows that turnout was low amongst Labor's 'core constituency'? Overall turn out in 2010 was very high: http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm

    Turnout was particularly high in the North which is traditionally viewed as 'Labour heartland'.

    Isn't it equally possible that rather than core voters not turning out, soft labour voters switched their allegiance to the Tories/Lib Dems?

  4. Tim - November 5, 2010 at 2:29 pm -

    I don't think comments made by MPs in courting the Party Membership in a leadership ballot are particularly objective analysis. They have a strong incentive to pander to the prejudices of the membership rather than an objective view of what went wrong.

    You insist that the Labour base was the problem in the UK. Labour held every seat in Scotland. Turnout in the North was very high. In fact, total turnout for the election was extremely high (http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm).

    Yet Labour lost a slew of seats in London and the South. That indicates to me that the problem in this election was Soft Labour voters who switched their allegiance to the Tories/Lib Dems. That's not a problem of insufficient pandering to the base.

    Australia is obviously a totally different beast, both politically and electorally.

    • Alexander White - November 5, 2010 at 2:54 pm -

      This is somewhat off topic to your comment, but ties into your tweet:

      The Yglesias article says that macroeconomic issues were the key factor in the midterms. (http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2010/11/stuff-doesnt-matter-very-much)

      I agree that unemployment and the crap US economy played a great role in undermining the Democrats.

      However, there is an argument to make that the conservative economic dogma that led the debate in Washington and drove the voting patterns of Republicans and a lot of Democrats (including Blue Dogs) actually made things worse. With the Democrats "in charge" in the House and Senate, it made it all the easier for the Tea Party and Republican Party to blame the Democrats.

      So if Obama and the Democrats had actually tried to seriously address unemployment rather than parrot conservative economic frauds, the economy may not be so crap in the US and the mid-terms may have gone better.

      C.f. Bill Mitchell: http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=12211

      Of course, it's a long bow…

    • Alexander White - November 5, 2010 at 2:59 pm -

      On MPs running for the leadership: I don't think you can discount what they say. In fact, post-election after they've lost is the time when a lot of truths can come out.

      • Tim - November 5, 2010 at 3:02 pm -

        I'm not discounting what they say totally – just saying that during a leadership ballot, they have a STRONG incentive to say the kinds of things that party members want to hear.

        • Alexander White - November 5, 2010 at 3:05 pm -

          The party membership by and large endorsed David Miliband and New Labour. Ed only won through the union vote (according to the reporting I saw). This suggests that the incentive would have been the OTHER way – to defend Blairism, Iraq, etc.

          For example (see emphasis):

          But the decision by John Mann to conduct a primary in his Bassetlaw constituency to determine how he should cast his vote in the Labour leadership election has shown that primaries can be organised for a little over £2,000. Instead of posting the ballot papers to residents, the main distribution was through hand- delivery by Labour volunteers as 15,000 local Labour voters received voting forms. The main cost came from the freepost service for the completed ballot papers but this was covered by an advert on the ballot paper and sponsorship from a trade union. The result, incidentally, was an overwhelming victory for David Miliband.

          http://www.progressonline.org.uk/articles/article

  5. Tim - November 5, 2010 at 3:01 pm -

    Hang on, if the swing was greater in Tory held seats that Labour lost in 2005, doesn't that suggest that the problem isn't low turnout from core labour voters, but soft labour voters drifting to the Conservatives?

    The fact that Labour lost a lot of marginal seats in the context of a high voter turn out shows that Labour lost the support of centrist voters. It's not a case of Conservative core voters turning out in larger numbers than Labour core voters. It's both Conservative voters and Labour voters turning out – along with a large chunk of centrist voters who previously voted labor opting for the conservatives.

    The situation here is the same as it is in the US ie safe progressive seats were held by the Dems/Labour. Marginal seats were lost to the Conservatives. That's not an account of a disaffected progressive base costing either party the election.

    • Alexander White - November 5, 2010 at 3:08 pm -

      I think you're overemphasising my comment regarding "Labor supporters stayed at home". I could argue that the historically low voter turn out (only 65% compared to 1974 – 79% turnout Labor win) demonstrates that Labor voters stayed home, and that swing voters ALSO switched to Lib Dems/Tories.

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