History Lesson

The question of the week seems to be, Can Democrats nationalize the 2006 congressional election the way Republicans did in 1994? Modernized counterparts to Newt Gingrich's “Contract with America” are being prepared, slogans tested, and national issues developed for an assault on the profoundly weakened beachhead of the GOP autocracy.

As is so often the case, though, Democrats are transfixed by the history and perceived successes of the right, when there are better lessons in our own history and our own successes. We'll come back to that in a minute.

There's a mundane reason that the 1994 model won't work for Democrats in 2006, and it can be summed up in the numbers 53 and 18. Going into the 1994 election, Gingrich could identify 53 congressional districts whose voters had backed the first President Bush in 1992 -- even as he carried only 37 percent of the nationwide vote -- while sending a Democrat to Congress. Many of these districts had been voting reliably for Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and even Barry Goldwater while never quite shedding their allegiance to a local Democratic representative. What Gingrich did in nationalizing the election was to encourage voters to look at their Democratic representative in the light of their already established presidential preferences. Even before the “Contract with America” or the verbal stylings of pollster Frank Luntz, once Gingrich had candidates and a tide of hostility to Bill Clinton in the South and rural districts elsewhere, he had all the ingredients he needed.

Going into 2006, however, there are only 18 districts that went for John Kerry and also sent a Republican, often a moderate, to Congress. Many of those districts are ripe targets, and perhaps enough of those Republicans will fall to make moderate Republicans eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act (assuming their party hasn't succeeded in repealing it). But that's a very small window of transitional districts compared with Gingrich's opportunity.

That's not to say Democrats can't win, but they won't do it solely by nationalizing the election in imitation of Gingrich. They will win as individuals in local races. It is not 1994 but 1974 that Democrats should be looking to as a model. That year brought 75 new Democrats to Washington. More than just a partisan shift, it brought a change in the style and approach of Democratic candidates and representatives. It is still easy to spot the politician who got his start in 1974 or shortly after -- some were liberal, some less so, but most were very serious about policy. They had a national perspective but were diligent to a fault about constituent service, parades, local mayors, local problems. They understood that with a large and complicated federal government, a member's role is not just to deliver pork but also to maneuver the system for people's good. They were ready for C-SPAN, which arrived in the House four years after they did. They put out a press release a day. And they were generally reformist, although that impulse has waned over time. Above all, they got it -- got that Congress was becoming a transparent institution, that reform was a core theme, that the executive branch was out of control.

In a recent profile of the creepy postcollegian Representative Patrick McHenry in The Washington Monthly, Benjamin Wallace-Wells had a good insight about 1994. “When Newt Gingrich brought the Republican Party back to power … ,” he wrote, “he did it with a phalanx of gate-crashers -- dentists, insurance agents, small-business men -- political rookies and ideologues ... . A decade on, the revolution has calcified into what is less an ideology than … a political machine.” Gingrich's “Contract” and the cassette tapes he distributed to candidates allowed the gate-crashers to make the most of their abilities and ride the national trend.

The Class of '74 Dems, by contrast, were not gate-crashers, rookies, or ideologues. Of the three Class of '74 Dems who remain in the House, George Miller of California, who last week forced the White House to back down on its plan to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act for Hurricane Katrina recovery, best exemplifies their pragmatic, intense, but liberal style, as do Tom Harkin and Chris Dodd in the Senate. Senator Chuck Schumer is the quintessential Class of '74 striver, but he won election to the New York state Senate that year, and needed to wait six more until a House seat opened. Bill Clinton, age 28, would have been in the Class of '74 had he won 6,000 more votes in his first race against a Republican who never faced a serious challenge before or since.

Michael Barone, editor of The Almanac of American Politics since 1972, has recently written comments on his introductions to those volumes. In looking back at his post-1974 book, he writes: “I think I was accurate in saying that ‘the elections of 1974 saw a transfer of power, in some minimal way, from this World War II generation which seems to have made such a botch of things [on Watergate, campaign-finance reform, and Vietnam] to the generation which sooner or later must take over.' There is a note of Boomer triumphalism here, but it is accurate to say that the 75 House Democratic freshmen elected in 1974 made a big difference in American government. It was in large part thanks to their political skills that Democrats held control of the House for the next 20 years; many represented Republican-leaning districts which they were able to keep out of Republican hands for many years.”

(For Barone, acknowledging that he was right about anything in 1975 must come begrudgingly, as he long ago made the shift from celebrating the post-Watergate class to a political position best described as hysterical idolatry of the person of George W. Bush. Recently, in order to make the stale argument that Bush opponents and the “mainstream media” are motivated solely by a desire to delegitimize all Republican presidents, he attempted a historical reinterpretation of Watergate of mind-blowing audacity: “This project has been ongoing for more than 30 years. Richard Nixon, by obstructing investigation of the Watergate burglary, unwittingly colluded in the successful attempt to besmirch his administration.”)

Not all the Class of '74 had the political skills Barone saw. Michael Dukakis was also first elected governor of Massachusetts that year, and like many of his classmates, his brand of bloodless suburban reformism -- deaf to the currents of values, loyalties, religion, and ethnicity and the growing power of the anti-government right -- was out of place in the post-Reagan era. But those are lessons that should be well learned by now.

The national issues of Watergate, reform, and Vietnam gave a common theme to the Class of '74 Dems, but they did not have a common slogan or a contract or get their talking points on 8-track tapes from Speaker Carl Albert. The national issues put some wind in their sails, but they were mostly skilled local candidates who learned their own constituencies better than their opponents or predecessors.

How did they develop those skills? For many it was the energetic but failed campaigns of the previous years -- George McGovern, Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy. For some it was experience in movements -- the civil-rights movement, the consumer movement. And for some, like Representative Toby Moffett of Connecticut, their experience came from statewide grass-roots progressive organizations, the kind of organizations that are built not just to win elections but also to change the agenda.

So what are the lessons of the Class of '74 for the Class of '06? First, that good candidates -- independent, straight-talking, hardworking -- are more valuable in current circumstances than finding a common message or contract for them. Like the Class of '74, they need to “get it” -- that is, understand the culture of corruption they are up against, that Democrats are an opposition party today, and that the political culture created by George W. Bush and Tom DeLay is not business as usual. They need to be willing to talk about the three big issues, which I would define as reform, economic security, and Iraq, but they don't all have to say the same thing. They have to say what they think, in a way that works with their constituents.

And second, that good candidates may not come from obvious places. Like Paul Hackett in Ohio's special election last August, they may not be the names that appear first when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee looks for popular state legislators or local millionaires who can finance their own campaigns. Like Richard Morrison running against DeLay last year or like Clinton in 1974, they may appear in districts that would never be targeted by standard electoral math but where a great candidate can at the very least soften up the incumbent for the next fight. It is also a lesson to campaign contributors large and small: don't act like risk-minimizers, concentrating resources on a handful of targeted seats and discouraging challengers elsewhere, but taking the fight to as many districts as possible, an argument laid out in more detail by political scientists Jonathan Krasno and Donald Green recently.

Further, the Class of '74 offers an important lesson that candidate recruitment doesn't begin and end by creating organizations dedicated to candidate recruitment. Without movements like those of the late '60s and early '70s, and broad-based grass-roots groups in which individuals can find their way to leadership, such candidates will never appear. Building organizations that live beyond the election cycle will do far more in the long term to build back a congressional majority than even the most perfect slogan, frame, or contract.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the weblog The Decembrist.

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