Dysfunction in the big Democratic tent

Democrats took back the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006, mainly by seizing an opening arising from Republican excess and corruption.

They dipped into the South and picked up an occasional seat by running cultural and economic conservatives, or maybe you could call them moderates -- Republicans-Lite, in other words.

These were hunters and church-goers recruited for those very biographical traits by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They vowed to balance the budget the Republicans had exploded. They promised to go a moderate way independent of the traditional national Democratic liberalism that offered little currency from Texas and Oklahoma eastward to the Atlantic.

I recall talking at the time with U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, a center-right Democratic congressman from culturally conservative southern Arkansas, a place of deer hunting and Baptist church-going. He was in a then-inconsequential group called the Blue Dogs, conservative to moderate Democrats pushing fiscal responsibility and an anti-liberalism.

Ross was excited. The House Democratic leadership had assigned Blue Dogs to mentor these Republican-Lite candidates in Southern and other conservative districts. The idea was for these members to apply the lessons of their own electoral success in liberal-averse areas.

Ross had been assigned to work with a former standout quarterback from the University of Tennessee, a young, nice-looking hunter and Labrador retriever field trainer named Heath Shuler, who was running in North Carolina.

Shuler won and joined the Blue Dogs. The House chose San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi as speaker. Her management of the Blue Dogs was relatively easy when the Democrats were united mainly in opposition to a failed and unpopular Republican president.

But then Obama got elected.

Governing is proving harder than loyal opposition. That is especially true considering that Democrats need to try to govern coherently with a congressional majority achieved incoherently. It's a big tent, yes. But there can be dysfunction inside it.

A couple of weeks before the past presidential election, Ross, a pharmacy owner who had emerged as the health care policy specialist for the Blue Dogs, picked up the phone and found that it was Obama calling. Barack just wanted Ross to know that, if he managed to win this darned presidency as it appeared he might, he would be reaching out to the Blue Dogs because he understood math and he understood politics.

Pelosi, however, decided the smarter course was to strike early in Obama's presidency with rather traditionally liberal initiatives, taking advantage of goodwill and popularity and momentum. She took the Blue Dogs for granted, and even leaned on several of them to give her the last couple of dozen votes she had to have to pass the cap-and-trade bill.

Ross stood his ground against cap-and-trade. Shuler got leaned on hard. He relented. He voted for it. He is getting beaten up at home.

The Blue Dogs resented that because some of them got strung out on something the Senate probably wasn't going to pass anyway.

So there's your background for what has happened. Pelosi was intending to sail through health care reform and deposit the matter in the Senate. The Blue Dogs reared up.

They don't like the public option. They don't like the spending without sufficient restraint. They don't like getting strung out on the leftward limb. They don't like being taken for granted. They have Obama's signature issue all gummed up. They're not budging.

Now Democrats are having to try to be true in their governing to their campaigning. They're having to try to weave a complex policy solution out of regionally diverse message.

In politics, winning is not quite everything. Sometimes it can be the problem.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.