While it is impossible to make clean definitions of what it means to be a member of the Progressive, Blue Dog, and New Democrat caucuses, a rough explanation would be the following:

Progressive Caucus members tend to serve in very safe, urban seats with a high concentration of poor people (but, often a decent amount of people that work in the banking and financial services industries, as well).

New Democrat Caucus members tend to serve in mildly competitive-to-competitive suburban seats, often with a high percentage of people that work in the banking and financial services industries.

Blue Dog Caucus members tend to serve in exurban or rural areas that are highly competitive and also have an overall culturally Southern lean.

You will see some hybrids, here and there, like northern suburban Blue Dog Rep. Patrick Murphy or rural, populist Progressive Dave Loebsack. These hybrid representative’s voting records generally reflect their unusual position within their caucuses.

Each of these caucuses has a governing ideology, but they can also be influenced by the relative competitiveness of their seats. Progressives are at little risk of being voted out of office no matter how they vote, but they can face primary challenges if they are perceived as selling out to corporate or right-wing interests (see Al Wynn of Maryland). Blue Dogs are constantly looking over their shoulder at Republican challengers that can paint them as pandering to Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco values, or being soft on national defense/terrorism, or being in the pocket of Northern banking interests (see Nick Lampson of Texas).

As a result, regardless of ideology, Blue Dogs are much more likely to vote like Republicans, especially on ‘free’ votes, while Progressives feel pressure to vote against them. These power dynamics are the best indicators of how individual members will vote.

When it comes to bailout politics, you can see these dynamics at play. As the bailout has moved from vote-to-vote, the Blue Dogs have become less and less supportive while the Progressives have become more and more supportive. Why?

The first two bailout votes were requested by the Bush White House and the last one by the incoming Obama administration. In addition, Obama lobbied in favor of the second bailout vote. To some degree, then, Progressives became more supportive once they realized that Obama supported the bailout and even more supportive when the money being authorized was going to be managed by an Obama administration and not a Bush administration.

The Blue Dogs were initially supportive of the bailout, but became less so as time went along, and now oppose it. One additional explanatory factor is that the third bailout vote was purely symbolic. It was a true ‘free’ vote because the money for the bailout was released when the Senate refused to rescind it. Voting against the release of funds in the House then became an empty gesture. Since the bailout is politically unpopular, the most at-risk members opted to vote against it.

With all these swirling and shifting motivations, it’s very hard to tell what voting members really feel about the issue. Do Progressives overwhelmingly support the bailout because they think it is good policy or because they are safe enough to vote for it and they want to do the president’s bidding? Do Blue Dogs secretly support the bailout? Despite overwhelmingly opposing it, are the Blue Dogs merely voting out of fear?

We could argue about these things all day long. But here is what we know.

Appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars to shore up failing banks, insurance companies, and financial services companies is an incredibly unpopular thing to do. Especially in an context of lax oversight and enormous waste, the Bailout is easy to criticize and even to demagogue. Members that vote for the Bailout are not expecting to be politically rewarded for it (although financial benefits are another matter). Those that can avoid voting for the Bailout will do so, even if they see it as necessary.

What’s clear is that Progressives are more inclined to support the Bailout now that President Obama will be in control of the money, while Blue Dogs are less inclined to support it (especially on a free vote) not that it is clear how unpopular the Bailout is and now that it is not President Bush requesting the money.

At this point, the Progressives are the most supportive caucus in Congress and the Blue Dogs are the least supportive among Democrats.

My analysis here treats politicians as if they have no opinion on the merits. That might be accurate in the aggregate, but individual members can and do base their votes strictly on their opinion of what is good policy. There are Blue Dogs that have voted for the Bailout (even on a free vote) because they think it is the right thing to do, and there are Progressives that have voted against the Bailout even though they need not fear voting for it.

What is inescapable, though, is that there is no consensus whatsoever in the Progressive Caucus against the Bailout. Over 76% of the caucus voted to release the second tranche. Only 38% of Blue Dogs chose to do so. The statistics offer no cover for the claim that the ‘Progressive’ position is in opposition to the Bailout, but they do offer support for the opposite case.

Some people feel that it is instinctively progressive to oppose bailing out banks and Wall Street fatcats and rich shareholders with money that might otherwise be spent on education, health care, and alleviating poverty. But it is not that simple. It is also progressive to look at all the facts and determine what course will ultimately protect your constituents from job loss, health care loss, and loss of financial security. It’s progressive to prop up the financial sector if letting it fail will devastate the poor and middle class people in your district.

And that is ultimately what this argument is all about. In my opinion, failure to pass the original bailout package (despite its glaring and obvious faults) would have caused absolute economic devastation that would have hurt people on the economic margins the worst. People that think things were not so dire think we could have waited until a new Congress was sworn in and crafted a better bill. Or they think that we could have negotiated a better deal. Or they think they whole thing is a fake crisis and a phony scam to steal money from the poor and give it to the rich.

I’m appalled at the behavior and condition of the financial sector, but I believe that we cannot allow the total simultaneous collapse of the global finance system and think it is going to protect ordinary people. We have to protect jobs and we have to find a way to keep money available for wealth creation or we’ll have gigantic unemployment and a downward spiral that will make the road to economic recovery longer and harder than it had to be. My support of a shitty bailout is based firmly in my progressive values. And, based on their voting record, most elected progressives agree with me.

I respect the opposing view, but I object to the idea that opposition to the Bailout is the ‘progressive’ position and that support is the DLC-corporatist position. It’s simply disrespectful and inaccurate to make that argument.