Tyler Bilbo, Columnist
Ideology: Democrat | Writing from: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Last week, Congressman David Obey (D-WI) unexpectedly announced his retirement. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Congressman Obey’s decision will undoubtedly shakeup the Democratic caucus. As one of the House’s longest serving members, however, the significance of his retirement goes far beyond these immediate ramifications.
David Obey came into Congress as the tumultuous 1960s drew to a close and became one of the first members of Congress to publicly oppose the war. In his appropriately-titled autobiography, Raising Hell for Justice: The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive, Obey recounts a career that epitomizes the type of courage that characterized his early opposition to the war. Unlike the majority of his contemporary colleagues from the heartland, Obey legislated with both his heart and his brain. A descendant of his state’s proud progressive tradition that started with Senator Robert Lafollette, Obey exemplified a command of the legislative process that complemented his unwavering commitment to Lafollete’s progressive politics. This capacity to maintain the pragmatic instincts of LBJ without selling out Wisconsin’s progressive legacy made Obey a remarkably gifted legislator.
While Obey was exceptional, he embodied a larger legislative tradition of heartland progressivism that used to constitute a significant force within the Democratic caucus. About two years ago, I attended a fundraiser for a local Democratic candidate that was headlined by a man named Frosty Troy. A fixture of Oklahoma’s Democratic base, Troy is a longtime political journalist who exudes a type of populist energy that coincides nicely with Obey’s progressive tradition. An old school progressive, Troy recounted his earliest days as a budding journalist when he was incessantly critical of Oklahoma’s corrupt Democratic establishment. As he described this corrupt “old guard,” however, Troy abruptly declared that he missed this bygone establishment that he helped eviscerate.
According to Troy, this old guard “had a heart.” Despite the corrupt wheeling and dealing that marred Oklahoma’s politicians, Troy fondly reminisced about an era that produced some of Oklahoma’s most celebrated political leaders. From Governor J. Howard Edmondson to Congressman Carl Albert, who would eventually serve as the country’s 54th Speaker of the House, Troy noted a faith in government that formed the basis of a heartland Democrat. It was this belief in government’s ability to actively improve the lives of its people that produced President Johnson’s Great Society, which passed while Obey was a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly.
The differences between Troy’s “old guard” and the contemporary heartland Democrat could not be starker. The fundamental belief in a government’s ability to provide for the welfare of its citizens drove a Democratic Congress to overwhelmingly pass the Social Security Act of 1965. The passage of that legislation, which included the establishment of Medicaid and Medicare, was much more expansive than anything Washington visited during the today’s health care debate. It passed by a vote of 307-106 in the House while the Senate voted 70-24.
Contrast those votes with the arduous process of passing a heavily watered-down health care bill that contemporary Democrats barely passed. Despite large majorities in both the House and the Senate, reform ran into constant opposition from Obey’s fellow heartland Democrats. The “Yellow Dog Democrat” has been choked blue and a new class of “Blue Dog Democrats” from the heartland have largely replaced Obey’s progressive legacy.
There is obviously much to be desired about the current era in Democratic politics. While Obey came out of a tradition that largely excluded racial minorities, the contemporary party is an incredibly diverse collection of America and I’ll take today’s Democratic Party any day over the days when the David Obeys of the world coexisted with Southern Dixiecrats. With that said, however, I long for the days when staunch progressives like David Obey emerged from the middle of the country.
The most promising development to signal that these days can return is the formation of the Populist Caucus in the House of Representatives. An ideologically diverse collection of the Democratic Caucus that includes members of the Progressive Caucus and the Blue Dog Coalition, the Populist Caucus establishes a set of six founding principles that guide its members towards a largely progressive socio-economic agenda. From Steve Kagen of Wisconsin to Bruce Braley of Iowa, this caucus is incubating the potential leaders of a progressive resurgence in the heartland that must occur if the Democratic Party hopes to further address critical economic reforms.
In a heartwarming ode to the Wisconsin Congressman, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne put it best:
“I don’t think they make politicians like Dave Obey anymore, but I hope that some young politician out there looks to him and decides there is now an enormous vacuum to be filled.”
I couldn’t have said it better and sincerely hope that this new era of Democratic legislators will resurrect Obey’s progressive legacy.