Yes, 2010 was a defeat of liberalism

Last night, Glenn Greenwald appeared on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC program to defend his thesis that because Democratic moderates were the main casualty of 2010, the election does not represent a rejection of liberalism. Greenwald argued that progressives can win in Republican districts — at least in the right sort of year, like 2008 — and so the lesson the Democratic Party should take from 2010 is that they don’t need moderates or “Blue Dogs” or whatever you’d like to call them.

I agree with O’Donnell that Greenwald overstates his case, and I would go further to say that he’s just wrong. My column today gives the quick and dirty argument, based on the talking points that Republicans used (to great effect) during the campaign. But there is a more detailed case that I’d like to make here.

There are different ways of judging a member’s ideology, but I like the American Conservative Union’s annual and lifetime ratings of Congress. The votes to be rated are seldom advertised in advance and they pick only the most clearly ideological ones that separate liberals from conservatives. ACU generally gives an accurate reflection of who is liberal, moderate, and conservative, on a 100-point scale, so there’s also room for nuance.

The House Democratic “Loser Caucus” for this year includes 16 members with lifetime ACU Ratings lower than 10 percent (note that I’m including some members who trail but whose races still haven’t been called):

  • John Hall (0%)
  • Phil Hare (0%)
  • Dan Maffei (0%)
  • Alan Grayson (0%)
  • Ron Klein (1.33%)
  • Tim Bishop (2.86%)
  • Carol Shea-Porter (4%)
  • Mary Jo Kilroy (4%)
  • Dina Titus (4%)
  • Patrick Murphy (6.67%)
  • Steve Kagen (6.67%)
  • Mike Arcuri (6.67%)
  • Betsy Markey (8%)
  • Mark Schauer (8%)
  • John Boccieri (8%)
  • Bill Foster (8.5%)

Progressives would probably take issue with some of the names here, but one point I tried to make in today’s column is that these ratings reflect more than just a member’s personal ideological leanings. Particularly in the case of relatively new members like Boccieri, they reflect the tough votes that these members were forced to take by a very progressive Democratic House leadership with a very aggressive left-wing agenda.

That’s why it would be misleading just to point out that the median lifetime ACU rating of all 53 apparent losers is about 18%, a fairly moderate score. There’s a lot more to the story when you look at how members’ behavior has changed under the Pelosi-Obama regime. I wrote about some of the toughest votes these members were forced to take, and ACU’s ratings for 2009 back up my point by reflecting a significant leftward tack by several members who really couldn’t afford it, given the reality of their districts.

Take Reps. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., and John Spratt, D-S.C., as two examples. Both have lifetime ACU ratings of 22 percent over a combined 40 years of service — fairly moderate. But both had ratings of just 4% for 2009. They represent the most extreme examples. Other longtime Democratic members who have tacked sharply to the left in the age of Pelosi-Obama — that is, their ACU scores for last year were roughly half their lifetime scores or less — are Chet Edwards, D-Tex., Ike Skelton, D-Mo., Allen Boyd, D-Fla., Solomon Ortiz, D-Tex., John Salazar, D-Colo., Early Pomeroy, D-N.D., and Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa. Honorable mentions for significant but smaller leftward shifts go to Reps. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., Melissa Bean, D-Ill., and Jim Marshall, D-Ga.

So this numbers game accounts for 28 members — half of the House Democratic Loser Caucus. But it’s not all a numbers game, because some votes are more important than others. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., a longtime ally of the coal industry, was probably undone by his support for liberal climate-change legislation. And nothing was as dangerous this year as the one-two punch of a vote for Obamacare and the stimulus package, even for members whose scores were roughly in line with their historical norm.

Also perilous for House Democrats: the decision to vote with Nancy Pelosi 90 percent of the time or more, even though many of those votes were on meaningless procedural matters. The liberal Speaker was clearly a weight among many moderates’ necks, including the small minority of Democratic losers who tacked significantly to the right in 2009. Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., for example, scored nearly double his lifetime ACU rating in 2009. Reps. Bobby Bright, D-Ala., and Gene Taylor, D-Miss., maintained fairly conservative records and lost in heavily Republican districts.

Still, these stories are exceptions to the lesson of 2010, which is also borne out by a 36-point swing in the independent vote. Independent voters had good reasons to throw out the GOP in 2006 (scandal and war, mainly), but it took only two years of total Democratic control to remind them of why they don’t like liberalism or Democrats.

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