In the wake of the Democratic takeover of Congress, Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., has stepped into the spotlight as something of a maverick. But, as much as independence is one of the traits that pollsters and focus groups consistently say voters like to see in their elected officials, Baird's new position is not shaping up to be especially comfortable for the man from the 3rd District.
Baird was one of the original 126 House Democrats who voted against the use of force in Iraq in 2002, and for years he was an outspoken opponent of continued engagement there. However, today, he stands virtually alone as an ex-anti-war Democrat who now supports the U.S. military mission.
In addition, Baird recently has put himself at odds with Democratic heavyweights such as New York Sen. Charles Schumer on taxation. The issue is whether to increase taxes from 15 percent to 35 percent on certain money taken in by investment partnerships, including real estate funds and private equity groups. Schumer says yes; Baird says no.
Baird's logic in supporting continued U.S. involvement in Iraq and in opposing the tax increase may be sound. Still, it leaves him in that proverbial political no-man's land, evidently trying to balance his own principles and viewpoints with those of his party's base.
With regard to the war, he claims that on a recent trip to Iraq, he identified real progress being made there and believes that, if the U.S. leaves, not only would that progress be undone, but sectarian violence in the country will increase, further jeopardizing human rights. With regard to the proposed tax increase, he says he is concerned about returns to pension funds. He has a point: Those funds invest heavily in private equity and would almost certainly see diminished returns if more money were being spent paying the tax bills of investment gurus, instead of passing gains back to investors.
Liberal and anti-war activists aren't buying it.
Having previously tangled with the left-wing blogosphere over his opposition to tax increases, notably last year when he voted to roll back the estate tax, Baird is now squarely within their cross hairs over his Iraq position. In recent days, liberal blogs such as the Daily Kos, the Huffington Post and Think Progress have bashed him for his change of view on the issue, with Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher dubbing him "every wingnut's favorite Democrat." His Iraq position has also contributed to his being targeted as a "Bush Dog" by bloggers at OpenLeft.com, which frequently criticizes the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and the affiliated New Democrat Coalition, of which Baird is a member.
It's not just the bloggers targeting Baird. This week, MoveOn.org put out ads blasting him for "flip-flopping" on Iraq, and at a town hall meeting in his home base of Vancouver, he was taken to task by Iraq war veteran and Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets.org.
With efforts to challenge in target elections so-called Democrats In Name Only -- driven by bloggers and Washington, D.C.-based They Work For Us and Working for Us PAC (earlier this year dubbed the liberal equivalent of the Club for Growth) -- 2008 could proveto be nasty for Baird. There already has been discussion online of the need for a less centrist Democrat to run against him, and with his having voted against his party on Iraq, agriculture and trade items over the past year, that discussion could ramp up.
Still, with Baird occupying one of the few Democrat-held seats in the House whose voters went for President Bush in 2000 and 2004, and with the Cook Political Report having last November rated his district as "potentially competitive," no matter what the left wing may think of him, Baird needs to be careful about any contemplated sharp left turn.
The war may be unpopular with some in his district, as the reaction at his town hall meeting last week would suggest, and definitely is among liberals here in the nation's capital.
Veering toward the Dennis Kucinich limb of the Democratic Party would be perilous -- at least for as long as Baird remains the only game in town for Democrats in the 3rd District.