By John Russonello
Just two years after Americans voted to re-elect the Republican President, the nation made a u-turn in its political direction by electing a wave of new Democrats to Congress. The President and the Republican party who had been revered for their genius at winning campaigns by rough knuckle politics and message control became widely ridiculed over ethical violations and continuing a war without a plan or a purpose.
The date was November 1974. Voters rejected Republican Congressional candidates across the country, making a national statement that sounded remarkably familiar to our current political situation. In 1974, Americans voiced their displeasure at a number of transgressions, from: ethical violations the White House in the Watergate scandal, to the continuation of a war that had gone on for much too long on the President's promise that the South Vietnamese people would take charge of their own democracy and war effort.
Americans of many political colors decided it was time to change direction. The '74 bi-elections produced 71 freshmen Democrats in the House of Representatives. We called them Watergate Babies because many were young, new to politics, idealistic, and ready to make change. They won their elections by campaigning against the Vietnam War, in favor of stronger campaign ethics laws, and in many cases, simply by having the luck of not being a Republican in 1974.
They carried their idealism with them to Washington. They believed the public gave them a to-do list, and they set out to get it done. They boldly challenged the old seniority system and loosened the tight grip of a handful of committee chairmen on the wheels of legislation, they passed campaign finance reforms, and they successfully pushed to end America's military involvement in Vietnam. Names like Henry Waxman, Toby Moffett, Paul Simon, George Miller, Andy McGuire, Bob Edgar, and Tim Wirth became part of a purpose larger than just holding onto their seats. Some just held their seats for one or two terms, others eventually moved up to the Senate or did something else with their lives. A few are still in Congress. Together they made their mark.
It remains to be seen what mark this year's 41-member Democratic freshmen class will make in Congress. Will new members like Joe Sestak (PA), Gabrielle Giffords (AZ), Steve Cohen (TN), Ron Klein (FL), John Yarmouth (KY), and Jerry McNerney (CA) feel a sense of common purpose, or will reelection itself be their only concern? If they are looking for an agenda they need to look no further than the issues that got them elected. The exit polls tell us that those voters who supported Democratic candidates were most concerned about the Iraq war, the economy, and cleaning up corruption and ethical violations. The exit polls told us that three quarters of those voting for Democrats said they want the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq.
A look at the exit polls also suggests that this year's Congressional election presents an opening for Democrats to be as bold as the Watergate Babies.
While the Democrats made gains among nearly all demographic groups, some of their largest gains over 2002 happened among:
That's right, suburbanites actually favored Democrats over Republicans this year, 50% to 48%. That does not sound like much, until you consider that in the 2002 elections, Republican candidates held a seventeen point advantage over Democrats in the suburbs. Democrats did not win these voters over by becoming opponents of abortion rights and same sex marriage. They won because Americans want more stable jobs and communities, they want to support our troops by getting them out of a pointless, unwinnable situation in Iraq, and they want a government that is more honest and responsive to the people it represents.
Twenty two years ago, loud cries of distrust of government from voters across the political spectrum gave birth to the Watergate Babies. Then it was the distrust of Nixon and his associates for abusing the power of the White House. This year the voters expressed a similar distrust of a Presidency that has continually dissembled about its purpose and performance in Iraq, turned a blind eye to ethical violations by members of its party, and shown no concern for those Americans struggling economically.
The Watergate Babies did not accomplish everything they set out to do, but they were not afraid to try, and they accomplished a great deal. It remains to be seen whether the freshmen Anti-Bush Babies will use their political capital to make progress on the issues that matter to people. It just might be the beginning of a definition for the Democrats.
John Russonello is a partner in the public opinion research and strategic communications firm Belden Russonello Strategists in Washington.