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A Children’s Primer on Politics?

Anyone with kids has spent a lot of time reading books with fewer than 10 words on a page. But as the political environment heats up, what looks like a harmless bedtime story can turn into a hidden political message or even astute political analysis.

At least, if you’re like me and have elections on the brain.

When you live in Washington, D.C., amid endless partisan bickering, elephants can seem like more than just elephants, and even blue-colored dogs — imagined in 1961 long before the fiscally conservative Democrats assumed the moniker — can take on outsized meaning.

Or maybe I just need more sleep, given  that there’s a newborn in the family.

But consider the New York Times best-seller “Duck for President” by Doreen Cronin. It looks like a feel-good story of an ordinary water fowl with semi-ordinary chores winning an election to take over the farm. Duck uses his new post as a launching pad to get elected governor and then chief executive of the United States before realizing the job ain’t all it’s quacked up to be.  

Duck’s climb wasn’t without controversy. In his first election on the farm, Duck instituted some strict voter registration guidelines. Under protest from the mice, Duck relented and removed the height requirement. But potential voters were still required to show valid identification. Duck’s subsequent victory likely was met with a lawsuit from Farmer Brown and Democrats claiming voter suppression, given that the fight over voter identification is an age-old battle between the two parties that rages on today. 

The Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee send regular emails trying to fundraise off the fear that Republicans are trying to suppress voters in some key states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin and Texas. No word on whether Mr. Brown’s farm is being added to the watch list. 

For Democrats, “Go, Dog. Go!” might just provide piercing political analysis that could elicit nightmares if read right before going to bed. 

On the surface, the P.D. Eastman classic features dogs of all colors involved in crazy antics that might make more sense under the influence of an illegal substance. But those antics include a blue dog, in a car, “Going away. Going away fast.” Sound familiar? Those few words are descriptive of House Democrats’ problems.

“Why are they going fast in those cars? What are they going to do? Where are those dogs going?” the characters ask in the book. Apparently, they’re going anywhere but back to Congress.

During the past couple of years, the ranks of Blue Dog Democrats have been decimated. The group of self-described fiscal conservatives used to boast more than 50 Members, but it was sliced in half after the 2010 elections. Some of the Blue Dogs retired while others lost re-election, but unfortunately for Democrats, the exodus is not over.  

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) resigned just weeks into the 112th Congress to take a job in the private sector. Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Dan Boren is only 38 years old, but he announced his retirement, leaving his Oklahoma district in his rearview mirror and extremely vulnerable to a Republican takeover. Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) announced he would not run for re-election under speculation that he’ll run for governor in 2014. He leaves behind another vulnerable open seat. 

The Blue Dog exodus could continue if Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah) decides that he’d have a better chance running statewide rather than in a new Congressional district drawn by Republicans, and Rep. Heath Shuler (D) might find another job instead of running for re-election in the most Republican district in North Carolina.

Come to think of it, I bet a story about redistricting might do a better job of putting my 3-year-old to sleep.

It might be easier to explain a tale about herding elephants. Not exactly the Republican ones, though the political metaphors on the pages of Jeff Sheppard and Felicia Bond’s “The Right Number of Elephants” abound.

For Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), the idea is more than the title of a children’s book — it’s his job. 

“The Right Number of Elephants” begins with a red, out-of-control train, full of kids and on fire to boot — not a far-off comparison to Boehner’s GOP Conference at times. 

“If you suddenly need to pull a train out of a tunnel and save everyone on board, then the right number of elephants is 10,” the book reads as it attempts to teach kids how to do a whip count — er, how to count, that is. 

During his first year at the helm of the House, Boehner has wrestled with dozens of freshman Republicans, emboldened by the tea party, in a battle of ideology and pragmatism. The media is quick to paint the picture of Republicans being split apart by conservative ideologues. 

For the past few weeks, Boehner has been figuring out the right number of Republicans he’d need in order to pass a bill that would allow an increase in the debt ceiling. In the end, instead of 10, that number was 174, giving the Speaker enough votes to pass the bill and demonstrate his influence.

No word yet on a sequel, which could be called “Elephants Raise the Debt Roof.” Or something.

Perhaps the most poignant story of them all on our family bookshelf is Pamela Allen’s “Who Sank the Boat?” The book is almost 30 years old, but its title might be the best way to encapsulate the 2012 elections. Instead of talking about hope and change and freedom, next year’s elections are likely to devolve into a blame game over the economy. 

In the story, a cow, a donkey, a sheep, a pig and a mouse were all “good friends” until they decided to go for a ride in one small row boat. As the boat began to sink, a search for the culprit ensued.

Unless there is a remarkable turnaround over the next year, both parties will rely on a strategy of blaming each other for sinking the nation’s economy. Unfortunately for Republicans, the donkey did not sink the boat in the story, but, of course, that won’t stop the GOP from blaming President Barack Obama for the nation’s ills. 

For the record, even though the pig was “fat as butter,” it wasn’t his fault either. 

In the end, a tiny mouse capsized the boat and all of the animals took a bath in the bay. Similarly, some people are predicting that widespread dissatisfaction with Congress will result in incumbents of both parties being thrown out of office. In this case, don’t be so sure that reality will mirror fiction. 

At least not the kind that also comes in pop-up form.

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