In 1972, after Richard Nixon crushed George McGovern by 503 electoral votes, the press rushed to declare the Democratic Party dead. Yet two short years later, Nixon was gone, Watergate and its associated crimes were exposed, and the Democrats had a banner year, gaining 49 seats in the House and five in the Senate. At the time, the mid-term victories seemed like the beginning of a new era and, predictably, the press lavished sympathetic coverage on the 74 freshmen Democratic lawmakers, dubbing them the “Watergate babies.”
But 1974 proved to be a false dawn. The Watergate babies ran and won on a platform of “reform,” but it was the kind of reform they pursued that proved to be most consequential. In his masterful book The New Politics of Inequality (1984), former Washington Post reporter Thomas B. Edsall distinguished between two types of reform, “procedural” and “substantive.” The former aim to achieve some kind of “ethical, moral or at least behavioral improvement in the conduct of politicians,” while the latter “attempt to use the government to correct a compelling social or economic problem and often involve[s] the alteration of the relationship between citizen and state.”
For freshman congressmen like Paul Tsongas and former Bush transportation secretary Norm Minetta (both of whom were elected from traditionally Republican districts), procedural reform was by far the more attractive route. It let them deliver on their campaign promises to clean up Washington, without threatening the financial interests of their upper middle class constituents. And so, as Edsall noted, while Congress took up campaign finance reform and ethics regulations, “labor law revision and election-day registration … consumer protection, hospital cost containment, and national health insurance – all ended up on the cutting room floor.”
It’s hard to blame the Watergate babies. In hewing to the goo-goo line they were likely representing what their constituents wanted. But all of this is of particular relevance now as the Democrats head into a midterm election with the Republican Party’s popularity at a six-year low and numerous GOP politicians under investigation or indictment for corruption. Should the Democrats win one or both houses of Congress (and no one should underestimate the Democrats’ ability to underperform), it is likely that they will devote much of their agenda to restoring accountability and oversight to a government that sorely needs it. But the class of 1974 should serve as a reminder that while procedural reform is necessary for redistributing power in the country, it is not sufficient. One can imagine a spate of procedural reform bills that disinfect Capitol Hill, but do nothing to suture closed the yawning gap between the rich and rest of us that the GOP has worked so hard to open up.
There are several obvious substantive reforms that Democrats should pursue: repealing the bankruptcy bill, undoing the tax cuts for the wealthy and forcing a vote on some system of universal health care. But any Democratic caucus will have a non-trivial number of members recently elected from moderate swing districts, representatives like Illinois’ Melissa Bean, who in 2004 unseated 35-year incumbent Republican Phil Crane in the Chicago suburbs. As a representative of a district with a majority of registered Republicans, Bean has voted with the GOP majority for the bankruptcy bill, for the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit that barred the government from negotiating bulk drug prices and for CAFTA.
The specter of a Congress with a dozen more Melissa Beans might at first seem a Pyrrhic victory, but it merely shows that pushing the party to stand up for progressive values isn’t a project that comes and goes in two-year cycles. After the election, it will fall to the great mass of unelected progressives – from the netroots to organized labor – to prevent this generation’s Melissa Beans from becoming the next generation’s Norm Minettas.