The Penultimate Watergate Baby

The 1974 midterm elections, held in the wake of Watergate, were a Democratic landslide. The party increased its strength in the House of Representatives by more than 50 new members, many from suburban districts that had previously elected Republicans.

The Watergate Babies, as the new members were called, were a different breed of Democrat than the veterans who represented more urban districts. They were not only more liberal on cultural issues and more committed to environmental causes than many more senior Democrats, but many of them were also less committed to the kind of bread-and-butter New Deal economic policies with which the party had been identified. In 1974, Jerry Brown was first elected governor of California preaching that the nation had entered an “era of limits,” by which he meant, limits to social spending. Gary Hart was first elected senator from Colorado, disparaging the politics of old labor Democrats.

Today, just two Watergate babies remain in Congress, both from California. Yet neither one has ever been the kind of neo-liberal that came to typify the Class of ’74. Henry Waxman, from Los Angeles’ Westside has spent his career strengthening the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and expanding Medicaid coverage, even during the Reagan years. George Miller, from a working-class suburb of San Francisco, was, with Waxman, one of the leading congressional authors of the Affordable Care Act (and a longtime proponent of single-payer healthcare as well). He steered the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it far easier for workers to join unions, through the House in 2009, though it couldn’t clear the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate. He also steered the 2007 hike in the federal minimum wage through Congress, and today is the co-author, with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, of legislation that would raise that wage to $10.10 an hour.

This week, Miller announced he wouldn’t seek re-election later this year. He’d call it quits, he said, after 40 years in the House.

Harkin, too, has announced he won’t run for re-election this year, but Miller is optimistic that their final major piece of legislation—the minimum wage hike—will pass before the term is over. “Today, lots of people—people I went to school with—they all know people who are being paid the minimum wage,” Miller told me earlier this week. “People with college degrees are not in the jobs they are trained for. People are saying—and it’s showing up in the polls—that no one can live on the minimum wage. I didn’t hear this in 2007 [the last time Congress raised the wage].”

Miller’s commitment to a more egalitarian economy has its roots in postwar California’s distinct mix of working-class and middle-class progressivism. Both Miller and Waxman were a special subset of Watergate Babies: They were protégés of Phil Burton, the brilliant San Francisco representative who was the House’s leading liberal in the 1970s, and an acknowledged genius at getting environmental, labor, and social welfare legislation through even conservative congresses. In a larger sense, they were products of a 1960s California liberalism that mixed social welfare concerns with the antiwar and culturally liberal politics of the 1960s.

The one other Burton protégé still serving in the House (though not a Watergate Baby herself) is the member who represents his old district: Nancy Pelosi. Miller is not just Pelosi’s consigliere, but it was he who first suggested that Pelosi could one day lead the House, and who, working with an unlikely crew of House liberals and not-so-liberal congressional leaders impressed by Pelosi’s abilities, helped her win the party’s top post—and, in time, the Speakership.

Pelosi’s ascent is emblematic of what Miller sees as the biggest change in politics since he first came to Congress in the mid-Seventies. “The diversity we’ve seen for some time in California is now entering national politics in full force,” he says. “There were just a handful of women in the House when I came here. Now, you look at the recent Democratic freshman classes, they’re really in sync with the rest of America. And, unfortunately, this change is part of the reason for a lot of the acrimony in political life today. The old white guys have been in control for a long time, and they’re not crazy about ceding authority. This is a backdrop, too, to the struggle over the role of government that we’ve been having in Congress.”

As my Washington Post colleague E.J. Dionne has noted, Miller has long been able to combine his fierce commitment to liberalism with an ability to reach across the aisle to get legislation passed. In recent years, the cross-aisle reach has grown harder to accomplish. The problem, he says is that, “Republicans have made ‘government’ a pejorative term. They’ve convinced themselves that there’s no value added by government, so there’s no harm if we get rid of scholarships for minorities or defund cancer research. This is completely at odds with American history—with government’s role in everything from highways to public universities—but that’s the zone that Republicans are in today.”

For Miller, government’s role is to provide the security that individuals—and the nation—need to succeed. “The people now covered under the Affordable Care Act,” he says, “won’t lose their health insurance because they’ve lost their job or are divorced or widowed, or because they want to go out and start a small business. That’s the greatest gain in economic security in the past 50 years.”

“When I first ran for Congress in 1974, I ran to stop the Vietnam War and get single-payer health care. When President Obama signed the ACA, a signal went off inside me that it might be time to leave. I’d been one of the three principle authors in the House, and I didn’t know how I could make a greater contribution.”

Miller is known for sharing his Capitol Hill townhouse/crashpad with other congressional Democrats—in recent years, Senators Dick Durbin and Charles Schumer. But it’s his 40 years of cross-country weekend commutes to his district and back that give his tenure the quality of an odyssey. “United tells me I have 5 million miles with them,” Miller says. “When I go home, though, I get my batteries charged. It’s always given me the energy to come back. But at 40 years, it gets a little tougher.”

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