Biting Back

By Killian, Linda | The American Spectator, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Biting Back


Killian, Linda, The American Spectator


With so much attention focused on the impeachment dance and the Republican House leadership's game of musical chairs, scant notice has been paid to changes within the House Democratic Caucus, despite the enormous implications they have for future control of the chamber. The Democrats are making it clear they will do whatever it takes to win back control in 2ooo, an event many of them consider a foregone conclusion. "We all understand that when we take over in 21 months-and I have great confidence that we will-that we'll have a narrow margin," House Minority Whip David Bonior said in a recent interview.

It took a couple of years for most Democrats to come to terms with the Republican Revolution of 1994. Even now, "I'm not sure that people still see themselves as being in the minority," one Democratic staffer says. "There's a sense that we're just waiting out the clock until we take back the field." Such overconfidence causes mistakes, and that has at least a few Democrats worried. "We're not nearly as close to winning back the House as everyone thinks," the staffer added. "It's not a slam dunk."

Minority Leader Richard Gephardt stands to gain the most should his party recapture the House next year. Though the Missourian did not publicly renounce his presidential ambitions until early February, Democrats sensed that, since his party's relatively strong showing last November, his full energy was focused on becoming the next speaker.

House Democrats applaud his decision and say it's their best shot. They note, for example, the minority leader's increased attention to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). In late January Gephardt transferred two of his top staffers to the committee. And he tapped third-term congressman Patrick Kennedy to head it.

The choice was surprising. When Kennedy first won his Rhode Island congressional seat in i994 at the tender age of 27, he was painfully shy, granting almost no national interviews in his first two terms in office, His speeches were awkward, too. Given that more seasoned Democrats had long waited in the party's wings Kennedy seemed ill-fit for the high-profile job ahead of him.

But Gephardt's choice may prove to be an inspired one. Kennedy's public performance has improved of late, and among the Democratic faithful-the kind of people who give money-the Kennedy name can fill the DCCC's coffers like none other.

Democrats will need more than money to recapture the House, though. As Gingrich proved with his Contract With America in 1994, it takes a caucus united behind ideas. This may prove a daunting task. Though less visibly so than the GOP, the Democratic Party is-and has been for several years-a disgruntled mass of factions.

The seeds of discontent go to the summer of 1994, when a frustrated group of about 20 Southern conservative Democrats began talking about forming their own group. Several months later, after Democrats were decimated in the November election, they mobilized: The Blue Dogs were officially born in February 1995. The inspiration for their colorful name (a play on the term "yellowdog" Democrat, a Southern Democrat so loyal he would vote for a yellow dog if it had a "D" by its name) reflects their frustration. A Blue Dog, suggests an aide to Tennessee's John Tanner, one of the founders of the group, is a Democrat choked by the extremes of both parties until he turns blue in the face. Or maybe a yellow dog left out in the cold too long.

By and large the Blue Dogs are conservative on social issues-against abortion and gun control; for things like school prayer, a flag-burning amendment, and increased spending for military and agriculture programs. The group currently comprises 29 members. Of the 12 non-incumbent candidates it endorsed last year, half were elected. These "Blue Pups" hail from Indiana, Kansas, Illinois, and California, as well as the rural Old South, their traditional bastion. …

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