Why Liberals' Silver Lining for a Midterm Rout Is Already Tarnished

Rep. Raul Grijalva John Moore / Getty Images

Electoral defeats inevitably produce two kinds of reactions. The more bitter, recriminative members of the vanquished party descend into finger-pointing and blame-assigning. Meanwhile, the party pollyannas go about their work of spinning a silver lining out of defeat. Usually it goes something like this: The party got too big, and some of the people who got voted out were too liberal/moderate/conservative. Now that they're gone, we'll be purer and more electable.

Usually that happens only after an election, a high-profile defection, or the like. But optimistic Democrats are ahead of the curve this year. It started with an Oct. 23 New York Times op-ed by Ari Berman titled "Boot the Blue Dogs." Berman concludes, "Republicans have become obsessed with ideological purity ... But Democrats aren't ideological enough. Their conservative contingent has so blurred what it means to be a Democrat that the party itself can barely find its way."

That doesn't make a lot of sense. As Ezra Klein points out, it's a recipe for getting less done in the short term. And in the long term, if Democrats lose the House and want to take it back, they're going to have to win back purple districts, and that will mean ... more moderates (an argument Tim Fernholz also makes).

But who cares? Other liberals are getting in on the fun. The New Republic's Ed Kilgore looks at FiveThirtyEight's predictions and finds a lot of Blue Dogs in danger. "In other words, progressives won't have much purging to do," he writes, adding, "With some luck, the numbers could be higher."

To begin with, these numbers shouldn't be taken as validation of Berman's thesis (and to his credit, Kilgore doesn't take it that way): it stands to reason that Democrats increased their majority in 2008 thanks to Republicans and independents in purple districts voting for the Democrat, who in a purple district was most likely a moderate. With Democrats faring poorly in polls—Gallup's latest showed a whopping 15-point Republican lead on a generic ballot—those voters are likely to flip back, marooning the moderates.

More to the point, though, staunch liberals like Berman ought to be a bit more worried about their left flank. In general, one expects that the more liberal members of Congress are in more reliably Democratic districts—and that's worrisome for them. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is the left-wing equivalent of the better-known Blue Dogs, and it's got its share of endangered candidates. True, Blue Dog co-chair Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin of South Dakota looks like she's in grave danger, but so does CPC co-chair Raul Grijalva of Arizona: FiveThirtyEight says there's a 20 to 40 percent chance he'll lose, while forecaster Charlie Cook rates his race a tossup.

Looking over the CPC roster, there are about a dozen Democrats in competitive races. And it's not just little-known lefties: among them are Dennis Kucinich, the oddball former presidential candidate; Chellie Pingree, who was a liberal activist and head of the group Common Cause before entering Congress representing Maine; liberal hero/rabble-rouser Alan Grayson; and even Barney Frank. Among the three Senate members, Roland Burris will leave at the end of the term, and Republican Mark Kirk may win his seat.

That's still fewer potential losses than the Blue Dogs, even if they were all to lose—which they won't. But the CPC, despite its numbers, is far less powerful than the Blue Dogs. (Don't believe it? Think about the health-care reform debate quickly: Blue Dogs nearly derailed the bill, while Grijalva's months of noisy advocacy for a public option went almost entirely ignored.) Democrats may get a smaller tent in January, but that's likely because there will be fewer people under it—not because the right side has been lopped off.