Back in his day, Tom Downey was the proverbial good liberal congressman. Elected to the House in 1974 as the youngest representative in U.S. history, Downey was one of the Watergate Babies--that cohort of reform-minded idealists swept into Congress on a wave of anti-Nixon public disgust. During the 1980s, Downey fought against cuts in school lunches, college loans, Medicaid, and other domestic-spending programs sacrificed on the altar of Reaganism. He earned renown as a vigorous--if unsuccessful--opponent of Reagan's B-1 bomber program, even though his Long Island district was home to the program's single-largest contractor.
Last spring, Spencer Abraham of Michigan was widely considered to be the most vulnerable incumbent in the U.S. Senate--"a guy," says one veteran politico, "who could only have been elected in 1994." Like many Gingrichians, Abraham was known less as a politician than as an ideological enthusiast, with few legislative accomplishments and spectacularly low polls in his own state.
Yet now, running against a perfectly plausible opponent, it looks like Spencer Abraham is about to win a second term. And therein lies a tale.
Last month, as victory slipped from Al Gore's grasp, a palpable gloom settled over certain members of Washington's opinion elite. Their candidate just wasn't all he had been cracked up to be. Sure, he had made some concessions to the base, championed a couple of core issues, even cultivated a few of the party's ideologues and intellectuals. But at the end of the day, they still had to wonder: Is he really one of us?
What, exactly, does George W. Bush think about homosexuals? Sifting through his campaign detritus, curious voters will find neither a stock denunciation (à la Gary Bauer) nor a pro forma statement of support (à la Bill Bradley). Though he refuses to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, Bush can point to a number of openly gay staffers working for his various state campaign operations. And yet as far as the Christian Coalition is concerned, Bush is opposed to gay adoption, gay marriage, and hate-crime laws--he is "for equal rights" but "against special rights."
By most conventional standards, Robert L. Burch III is an unlikely supporter of Bill Bradley. A 65-year-old executive at a New York hedge fund, Burch detests teachers' unions, trial lawyers, and liberal special interests. He believes in school vouchers, Social Security privatization, welfare reform, and, unhesitatingly, the Laffer Curve. "The press would call me conservative," says Burch, "but those labels are misleading."