Mark Schmidt argues that for Democrats aiming to recapture Congress, 1974 makes a lot more sense as a model than 1994.
Theres a mundane reason that the 1994 model wont work for Democrats in 2006, and it can be summed up in the numbers 53 and 18. Going into the 1994 election, Gingrich could identify 53 congressional districts whose voters had backed the first President Bush in 1992, even as he carried only 37 percent of the nationwide vote, while sending a Democrat to Congress. Many of these districts had been voting reliably for Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and even Barry Goldwater while never quite shedding their allegiance to a local Democratic representative. What Gingrich did in nationalizing the election was to encourage voters to look at their Democratic representative in the light of their already established presidential preferences. Even before the Contract with America or the verbal stylings of pollster Frank Luntz, once Gingrich had candidates and a tide of hostility to Bill Clinton in the South and rural districts elsewhere, he had all the ingredients he needed.
Going into 2006, however, there are only 18 districts that went for John Kerry and also sent a Republican, often a moderate, to Congress. Many of those districts are ripe targets, and perhaps enough of those Republicans will fall to make moderate Republicans eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act (assuming their party hasnt succeeded in repealing it). But thats a very small window of transitional districts compared with Gingrichs opportunity.
Thats not to say Democrats cant win, but they wont do it solely by nationalizing the election in imitation of Gingrich. They will win as individuals in local races. It is not 1994 but 1974 that Democrats should be looking to as a model. That year brought 75 new Democrats to Washington. More than just a partisan shift, it brought a change in the style and approach of Democratic candidates and representatives. It is still easy to spot the politician who got his start in 1974 or shortly after, some were liberal, some less so, but most were very serious about policy. They had a national perspective but were diligent to a fault about constituent service, parades, local mayors, local problems. They understood that with a large and complicated federal government, a members role is not just to deliver pork but also to maneuver the system for peoples good. They were ready for C-SPAN, which arrived in the House four years after they did. They put out a press release a day. And they were generally reformist, although that impulse has waned over time. Above all, they got it, got that Congress was becoming a transparent institution, that reform was a core theme, that the executive branch was out of control.
The Class of 74 Dems, by contrast (to 1994 and the Republicans), were not gate-crashers, rookies, or ideologues. Of the three Class of 74 Dems who remain in the House, George Miller of California, who last week forced the White House to back down on its plan to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act for Hurricane Katrina recovery, best exemplifies their pragmatic, intense, but liberal style, as do Tom Harkin and Chris Dodd in the Senate. Senator Chuck Schumer is the quintessential Class of 74 striver, but he won election to the New York state Senate that year, and needed to wait six more until a House seat opened. Bill Clinton, age 28, would have been in the Class of 74 had he won 6,000 more votes in his first race against a Republican who never faced a serious challenge before or since.
The national issues of Watergate, reform, and Vietnam gave a common theme to the Class of 74 Dems, but they did not have a common slogan or a contract or get their talking points on 8-track tapes from Speaker Carl Albert. The national issues put some wind in their sails, but they were mostly skilled local candidates who learned their own constituencies better than their opponents or predecessors.
How did they develop those skills? For many it was the energetic but failed campaigns of the previous years, George McGovern, Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy. For some it was experience in movements, the civil-rights movement, the consumer movement. And for some, like Representative Toby Moffett of Connecticut, their experience came from statewide grass-roots progressive organizations, the kind of organizations that are built not just to win elections but also to change the agenda.
So what are the lessons of the Class of 74 for the Class of 06? First, that good candidates, independent, straight-talking, hardworking, are more valuable in current circumstances than finding a common message or contract for them. Like the Class of 74, they need to get it, that is, understand the culture of corruption they are up against, that Democrats are an opposition party today, and that the political culture created by George W. Bush and Tom DeLay is not business as usual. They need to be willing to talk about the three big issues, which I would define as reform, economic security, and Iraq, but they dont all have to say the same thing. They have to say what they think, in a way that works with their constituents.
And second, that good candidates may not come from obvious places. Like Paul Hackett in Ohios special election last August, they may not be the names that appear first when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee looks for popular state legislators or local millionaires who can finance their own campaigns. Like Richard Morrison running against DeLay last year or like Clinton in 1974, they may appear in districts that would never be targeted by standard electoral math but where a great candidate can at the very least soften up the incumbent for the next fight. It is also a lesson to campaign contributors large and small: dont act like risk-minimizers, concentrating resources on a handful of targeted seats and discouraging challengers elsewhere, but taking the fight to as many districts as possible, an argument laid out in more detail by political scientists Jonathan Krasno and Donald Green recently.
Further, the Class of 74 offers an important lesson that candidate recruitment doesnt begin and end by creating organizations dedicated to candidate recruitment. Without movements like those of the late 60s and early 70s, and broad-based grass-roots groups in which individuals can find their way to leadership, such candidates will never appear. Building organizations that live beyond the election cycle will do far more in the long term to build back a congressional majority than even the most perfect slogan, frame, or contract.
I think Schmidt is on to something here. And read the article he links to at Ruy Teixeira's website. The only thing I'd add is that what this all points to is the need for Democrats to not only target every congressional race, but to contest every election at every level of government. What this does is help to ensure a steady supply of talent that can be recruited for higher offices, and it also serves to help show Democrats making government work. As the Democrats search for a unifying message and appeal for 2006, 1974, and our own party, seem a better fit than 1994's Contract on America.