New Moderate Democrats Mostly Bow to Leadership

For the second time, Heath Shuler has fallen short of expectations in Washington. Two decades ago, he was a top Washington Redskins draft choice as a University of Tennessee All-American quarterback but proved a bust. This year, he came to Congress after being elected to a heavily Republican North Carolina who would be so conservative that it was even speculated that he would vote against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for Speaker. Not so. He not only voted for Pelosi but has been a fairly dependable party-line Democrat, voting the way Speaker Pelosi wanted on four of the six most difficult votes for supposed moderates.

Shuler is one of the Blue Dogs, who are advertised as less liberal and less predictable Democrats. The ranks of the Blue Dogs were swollen in the 2006 elections by new members such as Shuler (whose North Carolina district voted 58 percent for George W. Bush in 2004). But a closer look at what has happened in the first three and one-half months of this year’s Congressional session shows Republicans cannot count on help from Blue Dogs on important votes.

A piece of accepted wisdom from Election 2006 is that dramatic Democratic success stemmed partly from their openness to running moderate and conservative candidates wherever it made sense. During the campaign, the party’s leaders and primary voters evinced a willingness to abandon ideological purity, leading to Senate pickups in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Montana, and a governor’s mansion in Arkansas.

But nowhere was the non-ideological Democratic strategy more successful than in last year’s House races, which saw Democrats add 30 members to their caucus and elect Pelosi as Speaker.

From the suburbs of Pittsburgh to the deserts of Arizona, Democratic candidates who styled themselves as pro-life, pro-gun, pro-war, or pro-business — or some combination of these — won their races last November and entered the House of Representatives in January.

These freshman moderates include seasoned politicians such as former Tempe Mayor Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.), who upset Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth in Arizona. Also among them are political neophytes, such as Shuler, whose conservative campaign rhetoric misled some voters to believe that he might vote against Pelosi.

Some of them won because their opponents were corrupt, and others took Republican incumbents completely by surprise. Either way, these freshman moderates (see chart) have not just padded the numbers of a new Democratic House majority, but some have also made their party competitive and successful in regions and districts where no one had previously given Democrats a chance.

The Record

Notwithstanding the rhetoric of their election campaigns, just how moderate are they now that they are in office? With the Democratic Congress back in session, and just over 100 days now passed since its members were sworn in, the new Democratic moderates can receive their first evaluations. Some are holding to the moderate line they promised on the campaign trail. Others have directly gone back on their word. But as a few key votes show, all of them are finding it difficult to reconcile the tension between the conservatism of their constituents and the liberalism of their party leadership.

The House has already taken more than 200 votes this year, most of them on non-controversial measures or routine parliamentary motions that traditionally break along party lines. But a few critical, ideologically-charged votes give a sense of what to expect from these freshman moderates over the next 20 months, and also of what to expect from the Republican campaigns that will challenge them in 2008.

Tax Hike: Just before the Easter recess, the House voted on the Democratic budget for 2008, which anticipates a $400 billion tax increase over the next five years. Members who voted in favor of the budget blueprint were effectively playing along with the plans of the Democratic House leadership to raise taxes by letting the Bush tax cuts expire at the beginning of 2011. Of the 10 moderate freshmen listed in the accompanying chart, five voted for the tax increase, while four voted against it and one was absent. The budget phases out cuts on individual income tax rates signed by President Bush in 2001, resurrects the so-called “Death Tax,” and hikes rates on capital gains and dividends.

The Democratic budget, with its $400 billion tax increase, passed narrowly, 216-210, with the help of such other moderates as Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.), Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), Chris Carney (D-Pa.), Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio). Neither they nor any of the House Democrats supported the conservative substitute budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which curtailed entitlement spending and kept taxes down.

Iraq Pullout: If the Democrats’ tax hike showed that most of the moderates are there when Pelosi needs them, the emergency supplemental appropriations bill shows that all of them can be. That bill, which funds the Iraq War until October and sets a timetable for withdrawal, had been endorsed by the left-wing group It passed 218-212, with the support of every moderate Democratic freshman on the accompanying chart. In addition to requiring a withdrawal from Iraq along a set timeline, the bill was laden with earmarked pork projects that had nothing to do with the war and were certainly not “emergencies.”

Some of the moderate Democrats, in explaining from the House floor why they planned to vote for this bill, hid behind the fact that it provides money for the war, and so voting against the funding could have been perceived as a slight to the troops. Typical in this debate were the remarks of Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Tex.), who had re-entered Congress last year by running as a moderate in the district of embattled former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). “I will never vote to leave out troops stranded,” he announced.

Not all of these freshmen were quite so cooperative. Mitchell, from Arizona, took a different approach: “I am deeply disappointed in my party’s leadership for insisting on a timetable instead of working with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle,” he said. “I am also disappointed that leadership saw fit to include millions of dollars for unrelated spending projects for shrimp farmers and peanut storage facilities.”

Despite his frankness, however, Mitchell did exactly what his leaders demanded and voted for the bill.

Embryonic Research: On the question of funding for scientific research that involves the destruction of human embryos, the new moderates split down the middle. Although they had campaigned as pro-lifers in pro-life districts, Carney and Altmire had never promised to protect human life at its earliest stages, and both voted to have taxpayers fund scientific experiments on “unwanted” embryos from fertility clinics.

Meanwhile, Donnelly and his fellow Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D.) stuck to pro-life promises they had made, along with Ohio’s Wilson and North Carolina’s Shuler.

Unions: In two separate votes dear to the heart of union bosses, all 10 of our freshmen voted the party line. All opposed an amendment by Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) intended to speed up the stalled reconstruction of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina by exempting federal contractors and grantees from government wage-controls that are favored by unions — a policy known as the “prevailing wage.” In theory, this policy is supposed to reduce the incentive to hire non-union labor to save money. In practice, it results in lower profit margins and therefore less work being done to rebuild.

The more far-reaching vote, however, would eliminate workers’ rights to hold secret ballot elections to unionize their shops. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars to elect Democratic candidates, union lobbyists pushed hard for this bill — known as the “Employee Free Choice Act” — which would allow union lobbyists to take over workplaces through a system known as “card-check.” Under that system, a union need only convince (or as opponents would say, coerce) 51 % of affected employees to sign a card in favor of union representation, in order to represent and collect dues from the employees.

The “moderate” and “conservative” freshman Democrats have a mixed record so far in this Congress on a wide range of issues related to economic, military, and social policies. But most of them have shown that, in a pinch, they do what their party’s liberal leaders tell them. Four of the “moderates” mentioned above — Carney, Altmire, Lampson, and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) — have followed the party line on every important and controversial vote so far this Congress.

By winning a term in 2006 to represent a Republican district, each of the Democratic moderate freshmen earned two years to convince GOP voters that Democrats can look after their interests just as well as Republicans. But to the extent that each votes and thinks Democratic, each also risks a short career that could be over as soon as 2008.

How the new Democratic moderates voted on key issues
  Congressional District vote for President Bush in 2004 Budget with $400 Billion Tax Hike Conservative Budget Iraq Pullout Repeal Government Wage-Controls For Gulf Coast Reconstruction Eliminate Secret Ballot Union Elections in Workplace Fund Embryo-Killing Research
Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.) 53%
Harry Mitchell (Ariz.) 54% +
Joe Donnelly (Ind.) 56% + +
Brad Ellsworth (Ind.) 62% + +
Nancy Boyda (Kan.) 59%
Heath Shuler (N.C.) 58% + +
Charlie Wilson (Ohio) 51% +
Chris Carney (Pa.) 60%
Jason Altmire (Pa.) 54%
Nick Lampson (Tex.) 64% NV NV
+ = Conservative Vote, — = Vote with the Democratic Leadership

(An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Rep. Joe Donnelly voted for the Democrats’ budget.)