Blue Dog Blues
By Kimberley A. Strassel
The Wall Street Journal
August 7, 2009
If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were looking ahead—to the endgame on health care, and the election
beyond—she’d be thinking hard on Walt Minnick. That she isn’t explains the Democratic Party’s growing
Rep. Minnick is one of Mrs. Pelosi’s “majority makers,” and a bit of a miracle at that. This is a guy who last
year ousted an Idaho GOP incumbent by 4,000 votes. His district—rural, with a pinch of Boise—went
67% for George W. Bush in 2004, and 61% for John McCain. The last time Idaho sent a Democrat to
Washington was the early 1990s. The time before that preceded color TV.
Political wonder though he may be, Mr. Minnick is these days being taken for granted. He’s a supercharged
example of the mess Mrs. Pelosi has created for dozens of conservative and freshman Democrats with her
liberal health-care legislation.
Those members were sent home for the long recess, saddled with a bill their constituents oppose. Most
can’t defend it and, if forced, will return to vote against—leading to more talk of Democratic division and
partisan agendas. This in turn will only make their voters more wary of re-electing Democrats—even ones
who show an independent spirit.
For now, the 67-year-old Mr. Minnick remains tolerably popular, having shown himself philosophically in
tune with his voters. This Democrat is a former Nixon staffer (he resigned after the Saturday Night
Massacre) with a reputation as one of those Western independents who bucks party stereotypes.
He went from Harvard Business School to Harvard Law to the Army, and ultimately to running one of the
forest products companies that are a staple of the Idaho economy.
Mr. Minnick pitched himself last year as “a fierce believer in limited government, fiscal responsibility and
effective representation,” a message that he was able to use to sway just enough Republican-libertarian
voters to eke out a win against one-term Bill Sali. Mr. Minnick joined the Blue Dogs, though notably he
hasn’t joined his brethren in folding on spending and regulation. Mr. Minnick was one of 11 House
Democrats to vote against the $787 billion stimulus. He objected to his party’s 2010 budget resolution.
Last month he joined 43 Democrats who defected on the climate bill.
But health care is a real dilemma for him. Mr. Minnick’s district is chockablock with those Americans who
say they are relatively happy with their health care, and who are worried the Obama agenda will cut quality,
raise prices, and cost the country a mint. That fear has been driven by Mrs. Pelosi’s bill, which features
income-tax hikes, punitive business mandates, government-run health care, and steep cuts to Medicare.
Mr. Minnick has disavowed the legislation, and made the case to his party that the path to lasting victory is
to refocus around ideas on which there is broad agreement. Reached briefly on the phone, the
congressman didn’t talk politics, but did outline areas of consensus.
“This has got to be paid for, and not with smoke and mirrors,” he told me. “It’s got to do more to control
costs. The problem with America is not that we are spending too little; we are spending plenty. We just
aren’t getting good outcomes.”
Mr. Minnick continued: “We need to be giving consumers the incentives and knowledge to make wise
personal health-care decisions. And finally, it makes no sense at all for the government to be running a
The irony is that a majority of politicians agree on this path, but are hostage to Mrs. Pelosi and her ruling
liberal minority. And Mr. Minnick’s problem is that his fate is lashed to that leadership.
He can disavow this bill until the Idaho elk come home, but his voters see the big picture. They might
applaud his votes, consider him a great representative. Then again, they might look at Mrs. Pelosi’s
ambitions, and decide a vote for Mr. Minnick isn’t worth the risk of keeping her in power.
Republicans get that. In April, a former Marine named Vaughn Ward announced himself as a GOP
candidate for the district.
Here’s what he had to say recently, a small taste of the liability Mrs. Pelosi has bequeathed her majority
makers: “Walter Minnick claims that his main focus is on creating jobs, yet his boss Nancy Pelosi continues
to hurt the economy in Idaho by pushing through a stimulus bill that hasn’t created any jobs, cap-and-trade
legislation that raises taxes on Idahoan families, and a socialized health-care plan that costs more than $1.6
Of course, Mr. Minnick isn’t on board with any of this. But Mr. Ward is betting voters will hear “boss” and
“Nancy” and ignore that fact.
Mrs. Pelosi and the White House surely realize the risk, too, though they may think sacrificing a dozen
conservative Democrats on the altar of a sweeping health-care reform is worth it. But that doesn’t bode
well for the Democratic Party’s attempts to recruit candidates for conservative districts, a project
responsible for its current majority.
As it happens, Mr. Minnick is devoting most of recess to talking jobs and the economy, still Idahoans’ top
concerns. The campaign will have some health-care events, though on the phone Mr. Minnick says he’s
already had feedback from residents. They want a reasonable “reform, they want affordable health care.
But they aren’t willing to worsen the deficit, and there isn’t enthusiasm for [a government plan].”
He’ll soon find out if anyone higher up is listening.