Incoming Democrats Put Populism Before Ideology
WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 — The newly elected Democratic class of 2006, which is set to descend on the Capitol next week, will hardly be the first freshmen to arrive in Washington promising to make a difference.
The last time Congress changed hands, the Republican freshman class of 1994 roared into town under the leadership of Newt Gingrich as speaker and quickly advanced a conservative agenda of exceptional ambition.
Many in the class of 2006, especially those who delivered the new Democratic majorities by winning Republican seats, show little appetite for that kind of ideological crusade. But in interviews with nearly half of them this week, the freshmen — 41 in the House and 9 in the Senate, including one independent — conveyed a keen sense of their own moment in history, and a distinct world view: they say they were given a rare opportunity by voters, many of them independents and Republicans, who were tired of the partisanship and gridlock in Washington.
Now, they say, they have to produce — to deal with long-festering problems like access to affordable health care and the loss of manufacturing jobs, and to find a bipartisan consensus for an exit strategy in Iraq, a source of continuing division not only between but also within the parties.
Many of them say they must also, somehow, find a way to address the growing anxiety among voters about a global economy that no longer seems to work for them. There is a strong populist tinge to this class.
In general, they set themselves an extraordinary (political veterans might say impossible) task: to avoid the ideological wars that have so dominated Congress in recent years, to be pragmatists, and to change the tone in Washington after a sharply partisan campaign.
“I see myself, hopefully, as a bridge builder, a consensus person,” said Harry Mitchell, 66, a longtime state senator and former mayor of Tempe, Ariz., who defeated Representative J. D. Hayworth, an emblematic member of the class of 1994. “I can’t be a rabid partisan Democrat and represent this district.”
Nancy Boyda, who defeated Representative Jim Ryun, the legendary track star, in a district in Kansas that President Bush carried by 20 percentage points in 2004, summarized her mandate this way: “Stop the gridlock, stop the nastiness, get something done. People are tired of excuses.”
Claire McCaskill, who defeated Senator Jim Talent of Missouri in a fiercely competitive race, said: “I’m not from a blue echo chamber. I’m from a state that’s really like America — it’s divided.”
“The problem with Washington,” Ms. McCaskill added, “is you have so many senators who are from bright blue and bright red states; they’re not interested in common ground. They’re interested in making each other look bad.”
These attitudes could lead to tensions with the party’s liberal base in Congress — many of the party’s expected committee chairmen are traditional liberals — and thus occasional headaches over the next two years for the Democratic leaders, Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid.
But Democratic strategists say both leaders recognize that the new Democratic majority was elected, in large part, from Republican-leaning districts and states. If those new members vote in a purely partisan way, they — and the majority — will quickly be put at risk.
Representative Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who recruited many of these candidates as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, described the group as “moderate in temperament and reformers in spirit.” Conservatives tend to highlight the conservatism in the new class as a sign that Democrats are essentially ceding ground to the right on issues like gun control and abortion.
But many of these freshmen Democrats are hard to pigeonhole ideologically. Even among the most socially conservative, there is a strong streak of economic populism that is a unifying force.
Heath Shuler, for example, the former professional football player and newly elected House Democrat from North Carolina, is anti-abortion and pro-gun, but sounds like an old-style Democrat on economic issues.
“I was taught at a very, very young age about faith and personal responsibility, and through that, that responsibility was about helping those who cannot help themselves,” Mr. Shuler said. “If you look at what the Democratic Party stands for, it is about helping others who can’t help themselves.”
Like other Democrats, he supports legislation to increase the minimum wage and make college tuition tax deductible. He also opposes trade agreements that he says have led to a 78 percent loss in textile industry jobs in his state.
Similarly, Ms. Boyda of Kansas, a first-time office holder who relied on lengthy newspaper inserts to make her case to the voters, said, “The rural economy has been left out.” She added: “A lot of my district feels a great deal of insecurity about their jobs, their health care, their business, their family farm. They feel like they’re just kind of hanging out there.”
Carol Shea-Porter, a social worker and new House member from New Hampshire who considers herself a populist, said, “The theme of my campaign was, I’m running for the rest of us.” She added that no matter how much the Bush administration boasted of job growth, her voters “understood those were Wal-Mart jobs.” And, she said, “They understood when they talked about the stock market boom, that half of Americans aren’t even in the stock market.”
Jim Webb, who defeated Senator George Allen of Virginia, campaigned heavily on the idea that the middle class was increasingly at risk in an age of growing inequality. Bob Casey, who overwhelmingly defeated Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, said he looked forward to “a really intensive focus on health care that I hope to be a part of.”
That economic populism extends, for many candidates, to a new emphasis on expanding health coverage. Congressional Democrats who lived through the Clinton administration’s failed effort to create a national health insurance plan, which many believe was a crucial factor in the Democrats’ losses in 1994, have been wary of broad health legislation for years. (And being in the minority, they were unable to do much about it, regardless.) But the class of ’06 is adamant that something major can, and will, be done.
Dave Loebsack, a political science professor in Iowa who unseated the veteran Republican moderate, Representative Jim Leach, said he intended to sign on to proposed legislation to create a single-payer, national health insurance program “as one of the first things I will do when I get to Congress.”
“I have no idea where it’s going to go next year,” Mr. Loebsack said, “but at least we can give it a fair hearing.”
Steven Kagen, an allergist who won a Wisconsin district that has been represented by a Republican for much of the past 30 years, campaigned on a “No Patient Left Behind” plan. Mr. Kagen won despite doubters who called it “the Hillary hot potato,” a reference to the first lady turned New York senator who was the architect of the Clinton plan.
“This issue has blurred the lines between the two parties,” Mr. Kagen said. “You don’t have to be a Republican or a Democrat to be ill, and to understand that the health care system doesn’t work.”
Mr. Kagen is one of several new House members urging a renewed commitment to the more than eight million uninsured children in the United States, an issue that will move to the forefront when the State Children’s Health Insurance Program comes up for renewal next year.
Most of these new Democrats said they were also committed to changes in the new Medicare prescription drug program; in fact, giving the government the power to negotiate prices with drug companies is one of the first items of business in the Democrats’ “Six for ’06 Agenda.” The agenda also includes an increase in the minimum wage and expansion of embryonic stem cell research.
Ron Klein, a state senator who defeated the veteran Representative E. Clay Shaw Jr. of Florida, said he had often heard both from retirees who fell into the gaps of the new Medicare drug plan and from “taxpayers who were really put off that this was something that could have been done a lot better.”
Democrats, of course, had their chance to resolve the prescription drug problem in the past — their party held the Senate for a brief period in 2001-02 — and few issues have been more divisive on Capitol Hill.
But the new Democrats say they have high hopes of building bipartisan coalitions for these changes in Medicare, for expanding embryonic stem cell research, and for other parts of their agenda. “I’m still scratching my head” over Mr. Bush’s veto of last year’s stem cell bill, said Ed Perlmutter, a former state senator who won a House district in the Denver suburbs.
Representative Sherrod Brown, who is moving to the Senate from the House after beating Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio, argued: “Tell me a whole lot of Republicans won’t work with us on finding a way for middle-class kids to get a college education, to vote for embryonic stem cell research, to raise the minimum wage. John McCain is already out there talking about prescription drug issues.”
The flip side to this, Democratic strategists say, is that Republicans could peel off a critical mass of conservative Democrats on certain issues. Some veterans on Capitol Hill remember the Democratic Congress of the early Reagan years, when conservative Democrats regularly broke ranks on tax cuts.
The true challenge to any new climate of bipartisanship will most likely come over Iraq. Many of the freshmen said they looked to the bipartisan Iraq Study Group — led by James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state, and former Representative Lee H. Hamilton — as an invaluable vehicle for consensus building.
“I pray, and I mean that literally, that their recommendation can be seen as a way forward,” Ms. Boyda said.
They also said they were pleased that Mr. Bush announced, the day after the election, that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would be replaced. Gabrielle Giffords, newly elected to a House seat in Arizona, said she had rarely given a speech without calling for Mr. Rumsfeld’s removal.
But there are still divisions in the Democratic caucus over an exit strategy for Iraq, although many of the freshmen come to Washington with a keen sense of the voters’ desire for change. Joe Sestak, a former Navy vice admiral who won a House seat in Pennsylvania, said: “I honestly believe this nation in its vote has said: ‘What are we doing in Iraq? We can’t stay there.’ I think they are rightfully leading the leaders to say, ‘Set a date; move toward it.’ ”
Others stop short of suggesting a fixed timetable. As they headed to Washington for their orientation, many of the incoming freshmen still spoke like outsiders. Tim Walz, a Minnesota teacher, retired National Guardsman and newly elected House Democrat, described himself as “a farm state Democrat-soldier who’s concerned about the environment and civil liberties.”
He has seen how ugly the partisanship can get in American politics, Mr. Walz said, and is adamant about changing it. “I’m convinced that what we need to do is heal,” he said. “Tuesday was not a Democratic referendum; it was an American referendum. It’s not that the American people are so enamored with the Democratic vision, but what they believed is what we said about cleaning up corruption, having some real open debate. It just seems so broken.”