U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, left, and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine speak by Zoom to Maine reporters in September from Capitol Hill in Washington. Screenshot from video

Watching the partisan clash in the U.S. House of Representatives from afar, Democrats and Republicans often look like warring factions that not only can’t get along but actually loathe one another.

Even up close, it can look that way.

Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Submitted

“Let’s face it, the likelihood that this House will actually have a lot of legislation that has any chance of passage and enactment into law is close to zero,” said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist who long kept watch on Congress and a senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute.

Yet a third-term Maine Democrat, Jared Golden of Lewiston, sees hope.

Away from the television cameras, members on both sides of the political aisle are reaching out to one another, said Golden, newly tapped as co-chair of a shrinking Democratic caucus called the Blue Dog Coalition that has long made the nation’s fiscal stability its priority.

Golden said everyone in Washington needs to understand that Republican control of the House this session, however narrow, is a reality that requires President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate to embrace compromise and negotiation.


Golden cited the rapidly escalating debt ceiling crisis and immigration as two areas where progress is possible.

The debt ceiling issue, which centers on Congress allowing the nation to borrow the money it has already allocated, ought to have congressional leaders from both parties hammering out a path forward with Biden, the Maine lawmaker said.

“That should be happening right now at the White House,” Golden said.

Since it isn’t, he said, “some of us are talking” across party lines in the House to see what might be done to avert the country’s first default on its debt, a potentially catastrophic blow to the economy.

“I know there are good people” among the GOP ranks in the House, he said, which means “there’s other options” for dealing with the debt issue besides waiting for the other side to blink.

“We gotta work together,” Golden said, a refrain that he returned to repeatedly during a 45-minute interview from his Capitol Hill office.


It’s a viewpoint that Golden has often enunciated and frequently followed through on since he won election in 2018 in a district purple enough to have backed both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, former presidents who don’t have much else in common.

Sandy Maisel, a political science professor emeritus at Colby College Submitted

Sandy Maisel, a seasoned government professor at Colby College in Waterville, said Golden’s moderate stances remind him of the approach of Maine’s senior senator, Republican Susan Collins.

“In many ways, both reflect Maine, especially Maine’s 2nd District,” Maisel said.

“Golden pulls this off by listening to his own drummer,” Maisel said. “He decides on what issues he will buck the party — and he bucks stubbornly.

“Is that successful? How do you measure that? He is successful in the sense that his constituents view him as independent, not a follower. He is independent in that he does what he thinks is best.

“Is that always success? I don’t know. He alienates some of his supporters when he stands on a principle that is unclear to many others. He makes few friends among Democratic leadership.


“But those are not his goals, so I think in his own terms, he is successful,” Maisel said.

Endangered Blue Dogs

The Blue Dog Coalition formed in the wake of the 1994 congressional election when Republicans, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, seized control of the House for the first time in four decades.

Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat who co-chaired the 23-member coalition, said at the time that it aimed to find “common sense solutions” and urged its members to put policy over partisanship.

Its first two achievements were a welfare reform bill and successfully pushing for a federal budget that borrowed $137 billion less than the GOP’s own spending proposal, a measure that briefly helped balance the federal budget under President Bill Clinton. It hasn’t happened since.

The Blue Dogs’ ranks have bounced up and down alongside Democratic fortunes, swelling in number when Democrats win in tightly contested districts like Maine’s 2nd and shrinking when Republicans do well.

Heading into last year’s election, there were 19 Blue Dogs, including Golden. Redistricting and the narrow GOP victory nationwide in November left only 13 of them still in office, though a couple of middle-of-the-road newcomers were expected to sign up as well.


Instead, the tiny faction split last week over a proposal to change its name and perhaps its direction. When the dust cleared, only seven Democrats remained solidly in the coalition. Golden emerged as one of its co-chairs.

It’s unlikely many in Maine noticed.

“I don’t think that you’d find many people in Golden’s district who care what the Blue Dogs call themselves. Heck, it would take some work to find people who know what the Blue Dogs are, much less that Golden is one,” said James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.

But for Golden at least, it matters.

“This Congress must confront significant fiscal and national security challenges in the months ahead and we stand ready as Blue Dogs to serve the interests of our country,” he said after taking the post as co-chair for administration and communications. Rep. Jim Costa, a California Democrat, is the other co-chair.

Golden told the Sun Journal that its members “are dedicated to the financial stability and national security of the country notwithstanding partisan political positions and personal fortune.”


Seven members isn’t many for so ambitious a goal.

But Republicans hold only a four-seat advantage in the 435-member House so it’s not impossible that a group of moderate Democrats could make common cause with a similar faction on the Republican side.

Karl Trautman is a political science professor at Central Maine Community College Submitted

Karl Trautman, a political science professor at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, said that “even with diminished numbers, the Blue Dogs could have some power in the new House. But that assumes they all stay together on crucial votes. Or, at least enough of them to influence a vote.”

Given “how close the division is, there may be times where the Republicans come looking for” Golden’s support to secure a majority vote Melcher said.

“In a closely divided body, there may be instances where getting to 218 is difficult,” Ornstein said. “And under those circumstances, where building any bipartisan support is required, those votes near the center that are actually persuadable will be highly prized.”

“There is an opportunity when we can take a common stance,” Golden said. “We would have a pretty important role to play when the stakes are high.”


“Now’s a moment for Blue Dogs,” Golden added.

Looking ahead at a difficult session

Ornstein, though, doesn’t have much hope that Golden or anyone else is going to make much difference.

“In a highly polarized body, where tribalism reigns and the majority is not interested in actual policy, this will not be a highly productive Congress for Golden,” Ornstein predicted.

But Golden said it may turn out better than expected.

Golden’s caucus memberships show his faith in compromise and moderation.

In addition to the Blue Dogs, he is a member of the For Country Caucus, which consists of military veterans from both parties, and the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group that consists of equal numbers of representatives from each party who try to focus on issues that can transcend partisanship.


Golden said it’s possible the group will try to search for an immigration deal that strengthens border security, resolves the difficulties facing “Dreamers” who grew up in the United States without documents allowing them to be here and other related difficulties that Congress hasn’t been able to work through despite years of negotiations.

What it takes, Golden said, is for legislators to listen with eyes open.

He said his interest in each of the groups comes down to a single question: “Is it a vehicle by which I can work with other members?”

Golden said he looks at issues not as a Democrat, but as a Mainer.

He said many other legislators are also more patriotic than partisan.

Golden said he’s determined to fight back against “the divisive ugliness” and “the developing narrative that we have to hate each other.”


The Golden middle

Golden said there are fewer districts nationwide where both parties have a serious chance to win every two years, including his.

James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington Submitted

“Congress has become much more polarized between its two major parties in the last 40 years,” Melcher said.

As a result of redistricting and growing partisanship, Melcher said that “in many districts, representatives’ ability to get reelected depends more on fending off candidates farther from the middle than they are” so they can win primaries that pose incumbents more risk than the general election.

“That’s not the kind of safe seat for one party Golden is in,” Melcher said.

“It’s much more crucial for him to maintain support from people outside of his party, plus I think that’s genuinely his orientation,” Melcher said. “This can frustrate some of his district’s Democrats, but they know the district is competitive, and that he’s more likely to hold the seat for Democrats by being more centrist than they would like.”

Melcher said there “is still value in being relatively centrist in Congress.”


Plus, he said, Golden made clear during the campaign that he is not “an automatic vote on the side of the Democratic leadership.”

He uses that position “as leverage to help his district,” Melcher said.

Melcher said that in Golden’s district, many people get “frustrated by how locked-down partisan the Congress has become.”

Since so many feel that way, he said, Golden “plays to that sentiment.”

For Golden, it’s just that Mainers are inherently independent-minded, maybe because the long, hard winters leave them no choice. He said he brings that mindset to Capitol Hill.

Trautman said that while Golden has been successful in sticking to the middle ground in Washington, it may prove difficult to remain there.


“What is thought of as ‘the middle’ will shift in the future,” he said. “It always does.”

“What will be interesting to watch is how the House Democrats try to portray Republican ideas and bills,” Trautman said.

The future vote “to increase the debt ceiling is fraught with possibilities,” he said.

“If changes to entitlements and border security are tied to increasing the debt ceiling,” in order to secure GOP backing in the House, “what would ‘the middle’ look like? If I were Golden, that’s exactly what I would be thinking about now,” Trautman said.

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