RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Every Dog Has Its Day


The news hounds have been howling about our successes in creating regime change in Washington. And in many news stories there's a cryptic comment on the existence of the Blue Dogs, a group of Democrats in Congress. I thought for a long time that this nickname was a red-state/blue-state corruption of the old Yellow-Dog Democrats -- the fellows that would vote for a yellow dog if he was on the Democratic ticket.

This phrase was understood without explanation, at least in states like Missouri where dogs generally outnumber people. But the explanation follows: Almost every breed of dogs has its standards for picking the best of the litter, but until the 1950s, when people started collecting golden labs and cocker spaniels, none of them picked out the yellow dogs.

If you want a good hunting dog, for example, pick the pup with the longest ears. And if you need a good herder, take the one that's solid black on the roof of its mouth. To tell, you have to open the mouth, stick your head in and look, but that's what you have to do. So, while many litters of pups have a yellow dog, it was the one least likely to make a good hunter or herder or whatever you needed. For one thing, the yellow dogs are, well, yellow. Chicken. They were said to lack courage.

So back in 1928 when a Democratic Alabama senator supported a Republican, his opponents disagreed by saying "I'd vote for a yellow dog if he was a Democrat." It meant the speaker had blind loyalty to the party.

I kept trying to make that blind-loyalty idea fit into what the news hounds said about Blue Dog Democrats, but it didn't work. So I saw I was barking up the wrong tree and recalled the old football code -- the red-dog, blue-dog, green-dog blitz. That code indicated the number of linebackers called upon to break through the offensive line. Red was one, blue was two and green was three. So Blue Dog might have indicated solidarity among the Democrats as they lined up against the Republican lines.

But that didn't make sense either, so I googled the phrase and learned that the blue-dog Democrats are a horse of an entirely different color.

Turns out that Blue Dog Democrats are a force of centrists elected as Democrats but voting as a block of social conservatives. There are 37 of them in the current Congress, representing districts from California to Maine and all points in between. Check it out -- your representative may be a Blue Dog.

And the name has nothing to do with tradition. The group was named because the original members owned paintings of blue dogs painted by Louisiana artist George Rodrigue.

The coalition was formed in 1994 "for more conservative members of the Democratic party to have a unified voice in Congress," as Wikipedia says. They are likely to be endorsed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and to vote pro-life. Looking at a few of their personal web pages, you'll see that some oppose cuts in agribusiness subsidies, which don't go to farmers but to corporate food companies, and they want to repeal the "Death Tax," which would not benefit ordinary Americans but would allow rich families to inherit money without paying taxes on it. Thirty-two of them voted to limit citizen access to bankruptcy protection, but not corporate access. Corporations can and do go bankrupt and keep many of their assets.

Blue-Dog energy policies tend to benefit industry with incentives for, say, ethanol and natural gas exploration rather than taking the correct path to conservation and wind and solar power. As nuclear power again raises its ugly head they'll probably vote for more subsidies for that nasty industry.

The Blue Dogs have raised money for like-minded candidates and successfully backed races where Republicans were overturned by centrist Democrats, which have now been taken in as "Blue Pups." While we are celebrating a Democrat majority, it's important to know that many of these newbies may swing with the Rs.

Even though they number only in the high 30s, number-wise, these are important swing votes, especially on fiscal issues. While it's hard to generalize, it looks like they'll stick with other Democrats when it comes to saving Social Security and balancing the budget. No telling where they'll come down on the future of war in the Middle East.

It's worth watching what issues these hounds are chasing and to keep in touch if your rep is in this coalition. Over the years, at least three of the Blue Dog members decided to be honest about their allegiance and moved when in office from the Democrat into the Republican party, but whether or not they actually switch, they'll probably vote pro-life, pro-gun, pro-industry and pro-long-high-wall-against-poor-people-from-Mexico.

Getting the correct votes from these folks is a matter of citizens working the issues we care about. When it comes to Congressional dogs, blue or otherwise, it's up to us to keep them on a short leash.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2007

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