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What the Last of the ‘Watergate Babies’ Can Teach Democrats About Trump

Being anti-Trump isn't enough

Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan is one of two remaining “Watergate Babies” in Congress — freshman Democrats elected in 1974 after the resignation of President Richard Nixon. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan is one of two remaining “Watergate Babies” in Congress — freshman Democrats elected in 1974 after the resignation of President Richard Nixon. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

By now, comparisons between Watergate and Richard Nixon and the Russia investigation and Donald Trump have become stale.

Soon after Trump entered the White House, his national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after getting caught up in the investigation into Russian meddling in the last year’s election.

Then his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the probe after it was revealed he had met with one of the Russian officials at the center of the investigation.

Concerns escalated after the president fired FBI Director James B. Comey in May, drawing comparisons to Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” when he fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

The cloud hanging over Trump’s first five months in office has motivated many upstart Democrats to consider running for Congress, both in special elections this year, and in the 2018 midterms. That enthusiasm has drawn comparisons to 1974, when Democrats won 49 House seats and 5 Senate seats in the first election after the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation.

But Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan, the last remaining of the so-called Watergate Babies in Congress (Democrats who ran and won their first races that year) say there are important distinctions between 1974 and today’s political environment.

“We’ve gotten too used to put ‘-gate’ on anything,” Leahy said. “Back then, what you had was domestic political corruption. Now we’re talking about a major foreign country trying to subvert our democratic institutions.”

Leahy said it was important for Democrats to “tell [voters] what they believe in.” 

Former Rep. George Miller, who was also elected in 1974 and left Congress in 2015, said the Watergate hearings improved Democrats’ odds of winning and encouraged more to run.

“You could draw a conclusion [that he was going to win] because the evidence is compounding,” the California Democrat said. “That was the nature of the Watergate hearings.”

But Miller cautioned that 2017 is different since the investigations haven’t reached their conclusions. “We don’t know the end of this story,” he said. 

Another major difference between then and now, Leahy said, was there was still widespread trust in the media at the time.

“Even the legitimate press, they get this constant drumbeat from the White House denigrating [them],” Leahy said of the current climate.

Public opinion on the media is much more divided today. A Harvard-Harris poll from last month showed 51 percent of those surveyed thought the media was being unfair to Trump.

Nolan, who left office in 1981 before running again and winning in Minnesota’s 8th District in 2012, pointed to one similarity between today and the Watergate era.

“There is a tremendous amount of, quite frankly, anger and concern and awareness that is very similar to the 1974 election,” he said.

But Nolan, like many Democrats, said other topics have taken precedence over the Russia investigation among voters back home.

“I think they are more concerned about health care and the environment and the direction that our government and our economy has taken,” he said. “Particularly as it relates to jobs and wages and benefits and environment and health care.”

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmaker, who recently passed on running for governor, also said simply opposing Trump could not work in a district like his, which broke for Trump by 16 points.

“What Democrats have to do is not run around complaining about the Republicans and the direction of their budget priorities,” he said.

What Democrats should be talking about are “aspirational” things, Nolan said, like improving infrastructure, and not just defending the 2010 health care law but working to improve the system.

“I strongly advocate for a single-payer, universal system,” he said. “That’s the kind of aspirational advocacy that resonates.”

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