The Plank

How Should Obama Handle The Blue Dog Dems?

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Obama is meeting with the Blue Dogs, the growing caucus of conservative-minded House Democrats, tonight. They're restive, and are threatening to throw a procedural wrench into the reconsideration of the stimulus. But some Democrats feel it's craven and wrong to "kneel" to these centrists as "overlords," especially in a moment when fastidious fiscal restraint seems to be the reverse of what's needed. So what should he tell them tonight?

It's worth understanding that the Blue Dogs, like almost all members of Congress, are motivated not only by their ideological beliefs, but by their vanity and by their consuming fear of getting fired by voters. Among the Blue Dogs, these motivations can be especially strong: there's the sense of righteousness that comes from feeling tougher and more austere than all the other squishy, big-spending liberals; and there's the reality that many of these members' seats are tougher to hold on to than your ordinary coastal district. Obama should -- and I suspect he will -- appeal to both these motivations, without feeling squeamish about it. It's not hard to plump up the Blue Dogs a bit: Obama already proved he could flatter them during the campaign, calling leading Blue Dogs in October and assuring them he knew just how powerful they soon would be. And he assigned his economic team to do outreach, something he should repeat in the days ahead. (In the fall, he dispatched adviser Jason Furman to meet with Blue Dogs and explain that Obama was one of them, despite the GOP's efforts to paint him socialist: Furman, wrote the Washington Post, "said Obama would seek to establish 'a government
unified around the concept of fiscal discipline and centered around the
pay-go rule. Insisting on paying for things will lead to better
economic policy.'")

Even though he didn't do well in a lot of their districts, the Blue Dogs like Obama, in part because they feel they, too, are part of a "change" generation of Democrats. Most of them don't want to embarrass him; they want to vote for the stimulus. (Health care, on the other hand, is another thing entirely, and Obama needs to dwell on that to make them believe it's important to him. Remember, Obama was often perceived during the primary as the Democrat least committed to passing universal health care.) The other reassurance they need from Obama is that -- since many Blue Dogs made implementing pay-as-you-go budgeting the centerpiece of their campaigns, an impossible promise -- he'll give them some outlet to tout their commitment to fiscal restraint come that fearsome Election Day. A public commitment to reconsider pay-as-you-go after the economic crisis ends (this worked like a charm earlier in the month), a bill that further reforms earmark disclosure, whatever: He needs to consciously create some pressure valve, an initiative or two the Blue Dogs can get behind and brag about back home in a year and a half.

One thing not to do: Butter up the Blue Dogs so extravagantly that the more imaginative among them come to believe he secretly likes them better than Pelosi and will help them distance themselves from the Speaker behind the scenes. We've already had one p.r. catastrophe along these lines.

--Eve Fairbanks

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