Who Let the Blue Dogs Out?

This is a grim story about the care and feeding of a Blue Dog.

Right now, Congresswoman Jane Harman is facing a serious primary challenge from a genuine progressive, Marcy Winograd, in Southern California's 36th congressional district.

Last Saturday afternoon, I sat on stage with both candidates and other panelists at a forum during the California Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles. The room was filled with several hundred progressive delegates.

Harman has been refusing to debate her opponent, but she couldn't stay away from the forum that afternoon. The entire convention would be voting the next day on whether to withhold endorsement of her for re-election.

The incumbent is a member of the center-right caucus of House Democrats known as the Blue Dog Coalition. In sharp contrast, she chose not to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus. When I asked why, Harman dodged the question.

Winograd promptly brought their differences into focus. She called for the government "to invest in housing, education, healthcare, transportation -- not to perpetuate a war economy that is draining us, robbing us of money that we desperately need." And she added: "I challenge my opponent to stop voting for this war machine."

While belonging to the largest caucus on Capitol Hill (with a membership now above 80), some members of the Progressive Caucus often say that they need more colleagues who'll be willing to vote against war and in favor of a truly progressive legislative agenda.

But if Progressive Caucus members want to move the House of Representatives in a progressive direction, you'd never know it when there's a chance to replace a Blue Dog with a progressive.

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Harman -- who once proclaimed "I am proud to be introduced as the best Republican in the Democratic Party" -- has been straining lately to present herself as progressive while she tries to fend off the Winograd challenge.

With that goal, Harman has trumpeted endorsements from several well-known members of the Progressive Caucus. In particular, she has synced up her campaign spin with two of them from California -- Henry Waxman and Lynn Woolsey.

Rep. Waxman came through with a January fundraising letter that declared: "In Marcy Winograd's foreign policy, Israel would cease to exist." The powerful congressman went on to trash the co-founder of LA Jews for Peace as an enemy of Israel: "In Marcy Winograd's vision, Jews would be at the mercy of those who do not respect democracy or human rights."

In the same month, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Woolsey, startled longtime progressive admirers when her name headlined the invitation to a fundraiser for Harman's campaign.

Within days, an open letter to Woolsey -- initially signed by Progressive Democrats of America leaders Tim Carpenter, Mimi Kennedy, Donna Smith and me -- gained more than 3,000 signatures from PDA activists across the country. We asked Woolsey to cancel her scheduled high-profile appearance at the Harman fundraiser.

"Given your longstanding and exemplary leadership on a wide range of peace and justice issues, it would be counterproductive to aid Rep. Harman's re-election efforts," we wrote. "Her pro-war record is well known, having voted most recently to spend billions to continue the occupation of Iraq and escalate in Afghanistan. Her October 2002 vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq was in stark contrast to the 'no' votes by most House Democrats."

Our letter added: "Harman has an equally appalling record on civil liberties, having lobbied the New York Times to suppress the story about Bush's wiretaps on the eve of the 2004 election, then going on television to defend the illegal wiretaps. In addition, she voted for the bankruptcy bill, then more recently voted against mortgage relief in bankruptcy court, despite the fact that several thousand of her constituents are facing foreclosure. On the health care front, she recently voted against fast-tracking affordable generic medications for patients with breast cancer, brain tumors, Parkinson's and rare diseases."

And we noted that primary challenges to incumbent Blue Dog Democrats are essential for replacing pro-war Congress members with genuine progressives: "The reason that we have Rep. Donna Edwards in the House today as a stalwart advocate for peace and justice is precisely because of her successful primary campaign that unseated a non-progressive Democratic incumbent. Surely such victories are in the interests of all progressives."

Meanwhile, the entire executive board of the California Democratic Party's Progressive Caucus -- the largest caucus in the state party -- also wrote a public letter to Woolsey asking her not to go through with the Harman fundraiser.

When Woolsey went ahead with the Harman event, there was scant significance to the modest amount of funds raised. (Money is not a problem for Harman, one of the richest members of Congress.) What Woolsey's appearance conferred on Harman's campaign was the imprimatur of a political embrace from a longtime peace advocate who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

As the winter went on, progressives in California hoped that such maneuvers would not be repeated. But the care and feeding of a Blue Dog is apt to be habitual.

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On Friday, April 16 -- just before the opening of the state Democratic Party convention that would decide whether to endorse Congresswoman Harman for re-election -- the delegates received robo-calls from a heavyweight member of Congress. "I'm Henry Waxman, and my congressional district is right next to that of Jane Harman, who I'm proud to support for re-election," the message began. It concluded: "We need to keep effective leaders like Jane in Congress."

On Sunday morning, I was one of more than 1,000 delegates to enter the convention hall and find a four-page glossy flyer that had been placed on every chair. Most of the first page was a picture of Harman and Woolsey, standing together in front of the Capitol.

The photo caption was a quote from Congresswoman Woolsey: "Jane has proven herself to be a leader on Capitol Hill, and I join other Congressional progressives like John Conyers, Jim McGovern and Henry Waxman in endorsing her candidacy." The second page was devoted to a letter from Woolsey extolling Harman.

When delegates voted later that morning, Harman won endorsement, 599-417.

Harman had to go to extraordinary lengths to win a party endorsement that is usually automatic for incumbent Democrats in Congress. She was able to do so largely because one-third of state convention delegates are appointed by elected Democrats -- incumbents who are very rarely willing to support any primary challenge to an incumbent.

It's one thing to support a Blue Dog Democrat in a general election against a Republican. It's quite another thing for members of the Progressive Caucus to defend a Blue Dog Democrat against a primary challenge from a genuine progressive Democrat.

In the case of the Harman-Winograd race, the best grassroots response from progressives around the country will be to strongly support the Winograd campaign between now and Election Day, June 8.

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Soon after visiting Afghanistan last summer, I went to Capitol Hill and met with a few House members and staff. All of them were "anti-war" and involved with the Progressive Caucus. Yet the extent of insularity and the lack of urgency were stunning. Official Washington was numb.

What's propelling the Winograd campaign -- with its passion, commitment, fearlessness and antipathy toward the corporate warfare state -- is exactly what Congress and the country need.

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