Monday, December 21, 2009

Babies, a Health Care Reform Story

On Saturday, June 12, 1971, the president's daughter was married in a televised White House wedding.  The next morning, the New York Times covered the event...and also began publication of the Pentagon Papers, the illegally leaked, Pentagon-drafted secret history of American involvement in the (ongoing at the time) Vietnam War. 

Richard Nixon, the President of the United States, was furious.  He was even more upset when the man who was found to have leaked the materials, Daniel Ellsberg, was turned into a hero by the press (perhaps because the press was against the war, but certainly because the press always loves anyone who gives them information).  Nevertheless, Nixon could have simply allowed a prosecution of Ellsberg to go forward and put him in jail.  Instead, Nixon mobilized the White House to smear Ellsberg in the press (and to prevent further leaks).  To do so, the White House organized a team of operatives dedicated to undermining Ellsberg, and eventually all White House enemies, using any means necessary -- means which rapidly turned criminal, such as a break-in of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in order to find embarrassing material that could be leaked to the press.  Later, some of those operatives moved to the Nixon campaign team, and proposed a massive operation to disrupt the Democratic Party and its candidates during the 1972 campaign.  Some of that operation was approved, and carried out. 

That led to the arrests during a break-in at Democratic National Headquarters.  That led to the revelation of the White House attacks on Ellsberg and other crimes and shady behavior.  That led to the imprisonment of a good deal of the White House (and campaign) senior staff, and the resignation of the president.

Among other things, that led to a huge Democratic landslide in the 1974 midterm elections.  The new Members of Congress were quickly dubbed the Watergate babies.  As a whole, they were a tremendously productive class...but of course time goes on, and most of the Watergate babies are long gone.  Only a handful of them remain. Of those, a couple of them (Pat Leahy and James Oberstar) are not central to this story.

But oh, the remaining Watergate babies.

Henry Waxman, Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the three House committees to work on the health care bill, is a Watergate baby.

George Miller, Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, on of the three House committees to work on the health care bill, is a Watergate baby.

Max Baucus, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, one of two Senate committees to work on the health care bill, is a Watergate baby.

Tom Harkin, new Chair of the Senate HELP Committee, one of two Senate committees to work on the health care bill, is a Watergate baby.

And Chris Dodd, acting Chair of the Senate HELP Committee during the health care bill mark-up and manager for the HELP committee during floor debate, is a Watergate baby.

I think the general consensus is that all five of these politicians did an excellent job putting the health care bill together.  Would it have worked (assuming, at this point, that it will work) without their talents?  Maybe -- maybe not.  Legislating is hard, and things can go wrong.  I'm not really making strong causal claims here, just telling a story of actions and subsequent, connected, developments. No Watergate, and some of these pols never get to Washington.  No Watergate babies, and perhaps health care collapses in 2009.

Here's the thing: Nixon's overreaction to the Pentagon Papers built on earlier White House efforts to control the president's political environment.  And at the root of it was Richard Nixon's obsession with the Kennedy family, and especially the man he feared most in 1972, Edward M. Kennedy.  Nixon had a private investigator tailing Kennedy, hoping to find dirt, long before the Watergate gang was in place. 

And so at least one of the stories about last night's cloture vote, and the rest of the Senate proceedings this week and then conference, and what sure looks like a set of final votes and a ceremony at the White House in January, is a story about Ted Kennedy's revenge on Richard Nixon, caused in part by the last remaining direct consequences of Nixon's self-destructive obsession with Democratic elites and the Kennedy family.


  1. What's interesting is that the normal saw on the Watergate babies isn't actually true, near as I can tell.
    Justin Buchler and I ran the numbers. We tried every possible permutation to see if people elected in certain years are any different than you would expect, given their districts. Nope. The Watergate babies are no more liberal nor more productive than those elected NOT in 1974. The class of 1978 (Gingrich's class, and often alleged to be the class that really formed the core of the Conservative Opportunity Society): nope. The famous class of '58? Nope.

    None of these classes are more liberal/conservative, homogenous, or productive than their peers from similar districts. (We tried the class of '94 too, and I think we might have tried every year for shits and giggles).
    Of course, this has never been published because it's a null result.

  2. To continue: these stories of "classes" are journalistic constructs used when there are a few luminaries in a cohort, as you note. But, everyone you're talking about is a career politician, and a good one at that. They exist throughout cohorts. We just like to ascribe the more-or-less historical accident that they got elected in the same year some causal agency, but it doesn't really seem to have any.

  3. I take it what you found was that there was no effect beyond the size of the class, correct? In other words, you found that having Waxman there doesn't make Miller better or worse, but surely if it's not a good Dem year in 1974, some of them would never have made it to Congress. And so even if the Class of 1974 wasn't especially productive per Member, it was still overall very productive (since it was huge). No?

    And I'd be shocked if the Newt Babies (1995) weren't significantly less successful than normal. Any data on that?

  4. I forget whether we did "success"'s a slippery concept to get a hold of. We were more concerend with ideological distinctness. Class size was put in there to predict both cohesion (basically, a lower variance within that class) and ideological extremity (under the idea that being part of a "wave" election gives those elected a sense of being part of a ideological shift, as well as some of their fellow cohort are simply out towards the poles and they try to convince their newly elected friends to have some Kool-Aid).

    If I remember correctly, we tried to operationalize success with sponsorship measures or some such, but we couldn't come up with a good measure that captured the real thing. Waxman is way up there in success, but how do you measure such a thing? If you're going off of committee ranking, you have seniority perfectly correlated with cohort. Bills passed and sponsorship let show horses outperform work horses. I think we dropped success because we couldn't figure out how to measure it in a way we were comfy with.


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