Rep. Henry Waxman of California has announced he is at long last leaving Congress, and one can only hope that America will at long last begin to leave behind the 1970s.
In recent years Waxman has been best known as one of Washington’s wackier liberals and perhaps the least handsome man ever to make a living in politics, both of which are notable distinctions, but it is also worth noting that he first arrived on the political scene as a member of the class of ’74. The estimable psephologist Michael Barone has reminded us that with Waxman and fellow Rep. George Miller of California both declining to seek re-election, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa making the same decision, and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana opting for an even cushier job as ambassador to China, the infamous freshman class will finally have almost fully graduated to private life after decades of legislative mischief. Two lone hold-outs will remain in the Senate after this fall’s mid-term elections, but it is almost the end of an error.
Readers of a certain age will readily remember the fall of ’74 with a shudder and a grimace, but for the youngsters among you it is hard to describe the horrors of that leisure-suited era. The Watergate scandal, the desultory end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and the coinage of the word “stagflation” had brought the Republican party to unprecedented disrepute, a newly triumphant baby boomer counter-culture and the corporate clout of the only three channels on television had given the Democrats a overpowering fashionableness, and the country consequently elected one of the most liberal groups of lawmakers in the history of the republic. Things got so bad that even in here in reliably Republican Kansas the party stalwart Bob Dole had to resort to some prototypical abortion politics to survive a challenge from an allegedly moderate Democrat, and in less sensible sections of the country the likes of Henry Waxman won office.
There had been liberal eras before, from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson and their congressional enablers, but the class of ’74 marked the most liberal yet. Despite brief pauses during the Harding-Coolidge and Eisenhower years the country had already gone so far left by the early ‘70s that such a putative Republican as President Richard Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency, instituted the federal government’s first quota programs, proclaimed that “We are all Keynesians now,” normalized relations with Red China, sought an accommodationist détente with the Russians, and generally racked up the sort of record that would latter allow President Barack Obama to claim with a straight face that “In a lot of ways Richard Nixon was more liberal than I was,” and yet the freshmen of ’74 regarded both Nixon and his even more moderate successor Gerald Ford as knuckle-dragging paleo-conservatives. That Congress blocked military aid funding that might have saved Vietnam from communism, started spending like money as if it could simply be printed up, went on a binge of regulation and social engineering, and then went even further after Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president.
The damage done was so severe that the country reacted in 1980 by sending the impeccably conservative Republican Ronald Reagan to the White House, even if the Democrats retained the decades-long hold on the Congress, and the result was victory in the Cold War, the longest and strongest economic expansion in the country’s history, and a renewal of America’s cultural confidence. Reaganism proved only another brief interregnum, however, and the seeds planted in ’74 would bear their most bitter fruit decades later. Among the other accomplishments of the mid- to late-‘70s government were the Community Reinvestment Act that provided the legal authority for the disastrous subprime lending policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations and the subsequent economic crash of ’08 that has still defied full recovery, as well as the Church Committee reforms that so constrained America’s intelligence gathering capabilities that the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks were made possible. The two greatest tragedies thus far in America’s 21st Century began in the late ‘70s of the 20th Century, and were voted for by Democrats who stuck around long enough to see President Barack Obama capitulate to the Russians and Chinese on everything, spend money as if it could simply be printed up, write up regulations and social engineering projects on a scale that make the ‘70s seem sober, and pass an Obamacare law that will ultimately do more economic damage than even the subprime schemes he is hoping to revive.
Conventional wisdom holds that Waxman and his fellow surviving members of the class of ’74 are declining another term because they expect the Democrats to take another drubbing in the upcoming mid-term elections, and it can be hoped that their well-honed instincts are correct. The next elections should not only be a repudiation of the past six years but also most of the past of the 40, and with luck we can finally put and end to the dismal ‘70s and maybe even embark on another roaring ‘80s.
— Bud Norman