Heath Shuler: The model Democrat

After Party’s Rout, a Blue Dog Won’t Back Down


After a junior year in which he almost won the Heisman Trophy, Heath Shuler was picked in the first round of the 1994 National Football League draft by the Washington Redskins. In fewer than two seasons — and after a few too many interceptions — he was replaced as the team’s starting quarterback. ESPN described him as one of the all-time draft busts.

He might be expected to play down such a distinction. But Mr. Shuler, 38, who just won a third term as the congressman representing North Carolina’s 11th District, has turned it into metaphor.

“It’s no different than me as a quarterback,” he said in an interview here on Thursday. “I didn’t play very good. So what they’d do? They benched me.”

The Redskins in this instance are the Democrats in Congress. The dismal season is the trouncing they received at the polls two weeks ago. And the quarterback is Nancy Pelosi, the soon-to-be former speaker of the House.

Since surviving that election, Mr. Shuler has emerged as one of most prominent voices in the debate on the Democratic Party’s immediate future. He was among the first to call for Ms. Pelosi to step down from her leadership role in the new Congress and said he would run for minority leader himself if no alternative emerged (though he admitted that he would be an underdog).

The Democrats’ achievements in the last Congress, Mr. Shuler said, are unpopular with the public because the party’s leadership has been too reflexively partisan. He says a more moderate approach is needed.

“It’s my guys that worked probably harder than any group in Washington, did all the right things, voted the right way and still got beat for the simple fact that you’ve got the far edges running the Congress,” he said.

His guys are the members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats who came together after the Republican sweep of 1994, and, boy, did they ever have a bad Election Day this year. Twenty-four of the bloc’s 58 members were defeated, including two of its four leaders (Mr. Shuler is the coalition’s whip). Four other Blue Dogs are retiring this year.

In 2008, 50 Democratic House members were elected in districts that President Obama failed to carry. This month, voters in only 12 of those districts returned Democrats to Congress. Two of those districts are in North Carolina, including Mr. Shuler’s.

Comment: The Democrats would be well-served by Heath Shuler in leadership!

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