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A Democratic Tea Party?

An incoming wave of ideological hardliners

The surprise defeat of NY Rep. Joe Crowley by non-traditional, anti-establishment newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has fueled extensive speculation about worrisome chasms opening within the Democratic Party as it struggles to reclaim a House majority.

As with the victories of other newcomers in a number of races around the country, some speculate that the incoming wave of ideological hard-liners — embracing aspirational goals like abolishing ICE, free college tuition and universal health care — might represent less the fresh blood Democrats needed to win the majority, and more a progressive version of the GOP’s absolutist Tea Party faction that became a persistent thorn in the side of Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

Some observers draw an historical comparison to the 1974 wave election in which 49 Democrats won formerly Republican seats, and 76 new Democrats were elected overall. “It’s going to be … an extraordinary class, like the Watergate Class,” says Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who cites “a hunger for generational change [and] for a new generation of leadership.”(Readers of DOMEocracy know that my recent book, “ The Class of ’74,” addresses this topic in depth.)

Experienced political observers – and I acknowledge, some of the traditional ground rules may well be evolving in this volatile atmosphere – counsel caution about drawing too many conclusions from select races. The Crowley/Ocasio-Cortez race makes for terrific speculating, but the degree to which it is emblematic of national trends remains very much open to discussion. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and other insurgents who will find themselves with voting cards in January 2019 will confront all of the same challenges to enactment of sweeping progressive legislation that progressives before them, like Barney Frank, Henry Waxman and George Miller, confronted when fashioning their own legislative initiatives: the diversity of views within the Democratic Caucus (let alone within the Democratic Party), institutional frustrations with the Senate and White House, addressing inflated expectations that are challenging to match with legislative output.

But in one respect, it is not difficult to predict one likely outcome of the November election, especially if the Democrats find themselves in the majority. The activists who become Members of the House are very unlikely to play the same role in the Democratic Caucus that the Tea Party insurgents have played in the Republican Conference. Indeed, the activists of ’18 are far more likely to resemble the 76 Democratic freshmen of the Class of ’74 than their 2010 and 2012 Republican counterparts.

The 2018 freshmen are likely to arrive with many aspirational policy agendas: immigration reform, affordable higher education, universal health care; as did their 1974 counterparts: ending the war in Vietnam, national health care, energy independence. They are likely to push their leadership on both procedural and policy changes, and to be told the House moves more slowly than some would like. We have already seen candidates voicing support for new leadership, as was the case in 1975, although today’s Democratic hierarchy is far more in alignment with the policy (and ideological) objectives of many of the potential freshmen than was true four decades ago. Still, as in 1974, there may be pressure for changes; Speaker Carl Albert was pushed aside at the end of the 94th Congress to make way for Tip O’Neill, and some freshmen are already targeting Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and others in the top positions. The long-time Leader appears content to have candidates say whatever they like if it helps achieve their mutual goal: a House majority. ‘Just win, baby,’ she was recently quoted as telling her critics.

There may well be challenges to some of the current members who are expecting to become chairmen, many of whom have served long tenures and have long lines of frustrated, aspiring colleagues waiting to move up. In 1975, three chairmen were removed by the Caucus, with near unanimous support of the freshmen. All were either elderly, autocratic or grossly out of line with the ideology of the Caucus (or some combination of the three). It is far more difficult to identify such out-of-step committee leaders today. Ironically, despite the historic challenge to the seniority system in 1974, there remains substantial support for honoring the seniority system within the Democratic Caucus, especially among many minority members who remain skeptical they could win chairmanships were the system abandoned. However, there could easily be pressure for term limits on chairmen, an idea floated several times in recent years.

In one very important respect, however, the Class of ’18 is likely to resemble the Class of ’74 more than those of ’10 or ’12. “You campaign in poetry,” it is said, “but you govern in prose.” The high-minded rhetoric of campaign speeches inevitably encounters the harsh reality of diverse viewpoints within the House. The complexities of the legislative process – substantive, procedural, institutional – combine to produce work products with less grandeur than envisioned by idealistic candidates. When encountering this reality of the democratic process, the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus activists have regularly proven obdurate, standing on principles not shared by the vast majority of the Congress, and willing to obstruct the processes of government and sully the reputation of the institution in which they serve. Doing so presents few problems for these extreme conservatives who have few objectives that require an operational federal government.

The Democrats of 2018 are unlikely to assume such a stance because, like other Democrats, they both respect and need a credible, functional government to achieve their goals. Ultimately, few Democrats are prepared to shut down government or demean the House because only with a functional and respected (or something approaching it) government can they achieve the policies they promote. The freshmen of 2018 will certainly demand some changes and, like those of ’74, they may well throw some sharp elbows and annoy their veteran colleagues. But like the Class of ’74, they are far more likely to become dependable supporters of the achievable, not a Democratic version of the Tea Party nihilists.

John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center, worked for 38 years in the House of Representatives, the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker/Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. This post was originally published by John’s blog, Domeocracy.

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