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Bustos’ Blue Dog Status is Puzzling


Two popular TV series come to mind when musing about East Moline Democratic Congesswoman Cheri Bustos joining the Blue Dog caucus: “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards.”

However, her alliance with the conservative Democrats this winter is so confusing given that Illinois’ 17th Congressional District is reliably progressive and populist, her move stands those political intrigues on their heads.

Maybe Congress is a “House of Thrones” and Bustos’ odd affiliation just a “Game of Cards.”

Bustos may see this as joining right and left, but it sure seems like marrying right and wrong.

 After all, regionally and nationally, progressive populist ranks are energized. In November, Boston elected progressive Martin Walsh and New York elected progressive Bill de Blasio – both by landslides. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (without whom corporate-cozy centrist Larry Summers would be Fed chair) is an increasingly respected but fierce champion for working families and consumers. Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are still working on strengthening Social Security by protecting Cost of Living increases and dumping the cap for the rich, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley are gaining attention, admiration and momentum for whatever ambitions they choose.

Populism is a rather broad term that covers making Wall Street accountable, fighting for working-class and middle-class wages, and protecting the vulnerable, whether Social Security recipients, needy kids, minorities or women. Richard Eskow, an ex-insurance executive now with the Campaign for America’s Future, said, “The classic definition of an ‘economic populist’ is a person who feels that wealth is unfairly distributed.”

Democratic Party activist and former union leader Andy Stern sees the trend as building, even as Bustos seems to be backing away. He said, “One of the biggest failures of the Democratic Party is that funders come from its traditional side of the economic spectrum and its voters come from a more populist, distributive side.

“The party tends to drift in the direction of its successful innovators,” he added.

But the Blue Dogs – obstructionists in key issues, such as a public option in the Affordable Care Act or stressing deficit reduction instead of the economic stimulus that was needed – are about as successful as reversing a spayed hound. Republican Sen. John McCain once quipped, “Blue Dogs bark but never bite.”

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman dismissed Blue Dogs as lapdogs for the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations that contribute to their campaigns, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Krugman said, “They’re nothing but corporate tools, defending special interests.”

Maybe that’s why the Blue Dogs lost about two-thirds of their members in recent years, falling from 50-some members to fewer than 20.

So: Why? It’s not “civility” to become a foe. If it were, we’d have a one-party state. Conversation and compromise are necessary, but not allegiance. If it were, the Tea Party would recruit Bernie Sanders.

Bustos may defend, rationalize or explain her Blue Dog association by claiming that voters needn’t worry because her votes show her true nature, or she needs to appeal to Republicans because GOP/Tea Party nominee Bobby Schilling is a real threat to reclaim the seat she won from him in 2012, or – hey – she’s preferable to Schilling. (Not a big hill to climb.) All that seems to show weakness, not determination, pretense, not principles.

According to a legislative scorecard compiled by, of 202 House Democrats, Bustos’ record has an underwhelming 181 rank. ProgressivePunch shows her record as the most progressive in civil liberties and human rights issues (but still 113th – in the lower half) and the worst in fighting for the middle class (189th!).

Elsewhere, surveys show that about one-third of Republican voters agree that wealth is unfairly distributed, as do two-thirds of independents and more than three-fourths of Democrats. So a progressive populist could appeal to a lot of non-Democrats – especially in the 17th District Congressional District. For 30 years it’s been dependably progressive, with Democratic candidates winning 22 of 26 federal elections – six times by double digits (1988, 1990, 1992, 2002, 2004 and 2008), and turnout is key – helped greatly by grassroots enthusiasm.

There’s an old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Would a corollary be, “The friend of my enemy is my enemy”?  

Contact Bill at; his twice-weekly newspaper columns are archived at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.