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Libeling the Class of '74

Since I"ve been promoting the idea that Democrats should look to the 1974 election, rather than the Republican gains in 1994, as their model for 2006, I should respond to Max Sawicky"s critique of the analogy, yesterday. "Watergate," Sawicky says, "ushered in a generation of Democratic politicians with little in the way of ideological commitment other than honesty.  Not long after Watergate we got the Reagan revolution."

As a general statement, I agree: Honesty, or what I called "bloodless suburban reformism" in the article above, is not enough. There is and always has been a good-government strain of progressive politics that looks at the integrity of the system as somehow an end in itself, without regard to the basic issues of distributional justice that are the reason for politics in the first place. Good-government politics not only doesn’t achieve the goals of justice, it also cannot possibly command a majority, especially not a majority of working people of all races who need much more from government than just internal integrity.

But I think Sawicky is wrong to use the post-Watergate class as an example of this political short-sightedness.

As an example, Sawicky says, "I’d rather have a slightly oily Harrison Williams expanding Social Security than an honest Tim Penny tearing it down." (Williams was an accomplished Senator from New Jersey and chair of the Education and Labor committee, best known for his work on pensions, but who got nabbed in the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s. Penny was a very conservative Democratic representative from Minnesota, last seen as a close advisor and would-be successor to independent governor Jesse Ventura.)

But that’s not an example that has anything to do with the post-Watergate class of Democrats. Penny was elected to Congress in 1982, not 1974. And I don’t think he’s considered himself a Democrat, in name only or anything else, in some time. He ran for governor as a candidate of Ventura’s Independence Party (getting 16% of the vote) and has been affiliated with the Cato Institute. Penny is sui generis, but if you have to fit him into any type, it’s a group that emerged after the Reagan revolution, trying in different ways to accomodate the conservative trend in the country and their own districts, as well as their own personal conservatism, and ultimately becoming simply conservatives.

The post-Watergate class was different. Yes, they were reformers, but reformers with a purpose. Their reforms of the House of Representatives broke the committee system by which hard-right Southern conservatives (still nominally Democrats) controlled the institution. As individuals, they were diligent, committed liberals, even though many of them, like former Rep. Tom Downey, represented Republican districts. In my article, I described Rep. George Miller of California, responsible for stopping the Katrina wage-cut, as the quintessential member of the post-Watergate class, I still think that’s true. Senator Harkin is another. (Another of the three class of ’74 members who remain in the House, incidentally, is John Murtha, although he is atypical of the group, older and more conservative.) These politicians did not follow a party line, but they were basically liberal and they understood what it took to move a complex federal government to meet people’s needs.

Nor does the post-Watergate class bear responsibility for the Reagan revolution. That was a product of the disappointment of the Carter presidency (some of which was caused by the old congressional barons, not the new class), economic distress, and demographic changes.

If we have a set of Democratic candidates in 2006 as dynamic, engaged, and appealing as the class of 1974 Dems -- and I think that we will -- not only will they win back the House, but they will be poised to make significant progress toward a more just society.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 2, 2006 | Permalink


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Thanks for a great read!

Posted by: jf | Jan 3, 2006 6:23:08 AM

Thank you, Mark. Max's putting blame for the Reagan and right-wing Senate election of 1980 on the class of 1974 legislators seemed uncharacteristically ahistorical and just plain wrong.

If we had a Senate full of Tom Harkins and a House full of George Millers, we wouldn't be in the huge mess we're sinking in now.

Posted by: Nell | Jan 3, 2006 5:30:38 PM

Apologies in advance if this is a duplicate post -- the first try seemed to spin off into the ether.

Thanks, Mark. Max's post seemed uncharacteristically ahistorical and just plain wrong in placing the blame for the 1980 election of Reagan and the right-wing swing in the Senate onto the congressional class of '74.

Posted by: Nell | Jan 3, 2006 5:34:47 PM

There is and always has been a good-government strain of progressive politics that looks at the integrity of the system as somehow an end in itself, without regard to the basic issues of distributional justice that are the reason for politics in the first place.

Love that. It neatly catches the unease I had with Hacker and Pierson's book, Off Center.

Posted by: janinsanfran | Jan 3, 2006 7:43:00 PM

minor ?
the url link
seems bogus (i do have a sub to prospect)

Posted by: macedc | Jan 8, 2006 12:01:39 PM

Senator Harrison was framed, was he not?

Posted by: david | Feb 3, 2006 9:03:29 AM

I’ve taken a quick look at your postings, which are very interesting. Lots of material and ideas! Congrats on being so focused!

Posted by: Larry | Nov 17, 2006 7:55:31 AM