WASHINGTON — The famous “Blue Dog” created by Cajun artist George Rodrigue came to symbolize the power of moderate Southern Democrats in Congress.
The Blue Dog Coalition, which started out meeting in the offices of then-Louisiana congressmen Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes in the mid-90s, frequently brokered compromises between Democrats and Republicans, particularly on spending bills.
This year, Blue Dog numbers have shrunk to 25 members, down from 54 in 2010, with none from Louisiana.
The Republican centrists are disappearing too.
On Thursday, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, took the floor of the U.S. Senate to support moderate Indiana Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, who lost his seat earlier in the week in a primary election after six terms.
“I worry when I see a dedicated patriot like Sen. Lugar drummed out by tea party zealots for being too willing to cooperate,” Reid said. “But that’s what happened on Tuesday.”
Lugar issued a warning in a statement shortly after his loss: “Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country. And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues.” He added that Republicans now “cannot admit any nuance on climate change” and are “expected to take pledges against any tax increases.”
Louisiana’s congressional delegation and all of the U.S. Congress have become more politically polarized, and the concern is it will only get worse in the near future, said Pearson Cross, chairman of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette political science department.
“The divide nationally is getting deeper and deeper and the middle is shrinking,” Cross said. “We’re seeing that in the Louisiana Legislature too.”
U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, a Republican from Quitman and the senior member of Louisiana’s House delegation, said the changes are obvious, with “more and more on the extreme left, and more and more on the extreme right.”
And Alexander, who is a former Democrat, knows what it is like to face attacks from within his own party. When he works toward bipartisan compromises, Alexander said, he sometimes hears, “Well I always knew he was a RINO.” RINO, which stands for “Republican In Name Only,” is often used as an insult against more centrist Republicans.
“One has to have the ability to compromise — not yield or give up on principles,” Alexander said, adding that he considers himself a true conservative. “I don’t believe in wasting and throwing money in the wind, but we have obligations as a government.”
A conservative Democrat himself, former U.S. Sen. John Breaux said he has watched the steady demise of the Blue Dog Democrats and other centrist groups as the middle has evaporated.
“It makes it much more difficult for any consensus to be developed,” he said. “Consensus needs to work from the middle out, not from the far left or far right.”
Someone who is more centrist, like U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, can work for the betterment of Louisiana, Breaux said. But she is deemed “too liberal” by conservatives and “too moderate” by many from her own party, he said.
Landrieu is the only member of the Louisiana delegation who self-identifies as a centrist. She contends nearly everyone else in the delegation now has a “very political” voting record.
“I’m basically the only one who keeps basically a 50-50 moderate record,” Landrieu said. “What the country, I think, wants are people who walk the middle line and are willing to work across the aisle to get things done. ... It’s given me an opportunity to really benefit the state.”
She primarily blames the Republicans for moving further to the right.
“You can’t just hug the goalposts,” she said. “You have to get near the 50-yard line. … But there’s fewer and fewer Republicans to work with.”
Landrieu has butted heads with congressional freshmen such as U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, a Republican from New Iberia and self-described “right winger” who rode the tea party wave in his election.
While arguing there is more bipartisanship in Congress than people realize, Landry said the so-called moderates are often a big part of the problem. He said dishonest politicians play both sides on the right and left and vote certain ways “only for political purposes.”
“When this country had this big old group in the middle, we ended up $15 trillion in the hole,” Landry said. “Sometimes I think the people in the middle are in the way.”
He said the Democrats in charge now are wrong, and that the Republican leadership under President George W. Bush was also wrong.
“They can tell you what’s broken,” Landry said. “But neither side can tell you how to fix it, because it’s always about the next election, not the next generation.”
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, a Republican from Jefferson, said groups like the Blue Dog Coalition showed the “model to get things done,” but it was “infiltrated by a bunch of liberals” and torn apart.
But Scalise blames President Barack Obama and Reid for the rancor in Congress, arguing they set the negative tone by starting 2009 with the economic stimulus and the health care overhaul through a “very liberal, partisan route.”
ULL’s Pearson Cross said that “compromise used to be standard in good government.”
Now, everything is about “brinksmanship,” Cross said, and “compromise” has come to mean sacrificing principles to make a backroom deal.
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat, laments the win-at-all-costs attitude in politics.
“I don’t think we’ve put the country first. I think we’ve put the political party first,” Richmond said, but soon added, “I think the tea party has certainly taken the position that compromise is bad.”
James Stoner, chairman of LSU’s political science department, said Republicans and Democrats are to blame for becoming more rigid and that it is “complete nonsense” to target only the tea party movement. Both sides are “pushing the extremes,” he said, with Republicans “locking themselves in on no new taxes ever” and Democrats unwilling to cut many government programs and services.
“Compromise can be a principled thing,” Stoner said. “You can do it as a way to keep your principles intact. But we don’t even compromise the little things, much less the big things, these days.”
The U.S. Constitution was formed on a series of compromises, Stoner said, which has proven ideal in the form of a sustaining government built on checks and balances, states rights and individual constitutional rights.
In recent years, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana’s Republican senator, has repeatedly used legislative tactics against Obama to fight presidential nominations and federal pay increases. He is currently blocking two appointees to the Federal Reserve Board, arguing that he does not want to support the “activist” economic policies of the Obama administration.
But even Vitter is calling for more bipartisanship and teaming with Landrieu on Louisiana projects.
What lawmakers are hearing from constituents, Vitter said, is to “please find ways to work together more effectively — not to throw your principles out the window, not to ignore that — but to get beyond bitter and unnecessary partisanship, and work more effectively together.”
Alexander said he believes the polarization is occurring partly because the nation is so evenly split ideologically.
That “evenly divided” competition leads to winning being the only thing that matters for some seeking office, he said.
“I find that troublesome,” Alexander said.
Breaux places some of the blame on the rise of political consultants who treat politics like football, with the “you’ve got to destroy the other side” mentality.
Breaux also said that shorter congressional work weeks and elected officials spending more time in their home states now makes it more challenging for them to work well together.
“It’s hard to stab someone in the gut, if you had dinner with them the night before,” he said.
Breaux criticized congressional redistricting in Louisiana and nationwide — or “gerrymandering of the districts” — for creating “safer and more polarized” districts that give politicians political incentive to be more divisive.
Redistricting has set up a potential race this November between Landry and U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, who were forced into the same district.
“The changing divide, I think, you can see in the difference between Landry and Boustany,” he said.
Boustany was seen as a clear conservative when he was elected in 2004, Cross said, but now is being painted as moderate in comparison to the tea party darling Landry.
“The tea party sprang up and Republicans got energized and quite a bit more conservative and libertarian,” Cross said.
The polarization was happening well before Obama was elected, Cross said. But because the president is so unpopular with many conservatives, his election brought everything to a head, Cross said.
The tea party quickly arose with Obama as its No. 1 public enemy, he said.
Richmond said he puts much of the blame on the modern era of the 24-hour news cycle and short sound bites. He said he thinks the public split over Obama is a product of that.
“He is in the full force of Twitter, Facebook, the 24-hour news cycle … and the ability of anonymous people to say crazy things,” Richmond said. “Then you combine all of those with the desire of Republicans to get the White House back.”
Louisiana is suffering because of the increasing partisanship and gridlock, Richmond said.
“It hurts states like Louisiana the most,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of sticking to Republican or Democratic talking points, because we have so many needs.”
Richmond and others say the Louisiana Legislature — which long was considered largely immune to national partisan politics — is becoming more polarized
“It saddens me that I think Louisiana is going in the same direction as Washington,” said Richmond, who served in the state Legislature until 2010. “It’s just not as extreme yet.”
Cross noted that the decline of the white male Democrat in Louisiana is easily visible as both parties have moved further to the left or right.
Jim Tucker, who was the Republican speaker of the Louisiana House for four years until he was term-limited last year, admits national politics is serving as a “connecting influence” on the Louisiana Legislature.
But things aren’t nearly as bad in Baton Rouge, where people can still get along, chat privately and come to agreements, Tucker said.
“In Washington, everyone just wants to sit in their corner and throws rocks,” Tucker said.
Stoner said he believes Louisiana is still feeling itself out and struggling with the issue because, until recently, it was always a conservative state even without a strong Republican Party.
Cross argued that Gov. Bobby Jindal has increased the polarization in the state by mostly toeing the Republican Party line and being able to heavily influence the Legislature in a state that allows its governor a lot of power.
“Jindal is a really ideological leader, and Louisiana is not really used to that,” Cross said.
Breaux said he is hopeful that more people who are identifying themselves as “independent” in Louisiana will start voting more for those wanting to put the state first rather than for a political party.
But Alexander said he fears things will only get worse in Louisiana, and nationally, during this election year.
“People are going to be tired of politics between now and November,” he said. “I think it’s going to be the ugliest we’ve ever seen. There’s a lot more money to buy a lot of rocks.”
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