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?