It feels like 1973-74 all over again:

Twenty years before the GOP’s “Contract With America” wave of 1994, the House absorbed the shock of another freshman class that was just as big and as dominated by one party.

The members of the Class of 1974 were young, relatively new to public office and remarkably certain they could remake Washington in their own image. They viewed Congress as ossified, beholden to powerful interests, unresponsive to the people and ripe for the taking.

The Class of 1974 had 75 Democrats to just 17 Republicans (the “Contract” Class of 1994 would have 73 Republicans and just 13 Democrats). This huge influx of Democrats was known as the “Watergate babies.” The label derived from the scandal that, less than three months earlier, had caused President Richard M. Nixon to resign under threat of impeachment.

So strong was the tide running that fall — especially after Nixon was pardoned by successor President Gerald R. Ford — that Democrats were elected in districts all over the Northeast, the Midwest and the West that had voted Republican for generations.

The two most senior members of the then-minority Republicans were defeated. In Massachusetts, Paul E. Tsongas became the first Democrat elected to the House from his district in the 20th century. The bookish Andrew Maguire in New Jersey and the street-savvy organizer Toby Moffett in Connecticut captured suburban Republican districts.

In the West, Timothy E. Wirth won the Colorado district based in Boulder, Les AuCoin became the first Democrat from Oregon’s northwest corner since the 1800s and California elected a crop of young legislators that included George Miller, Henry A. Waxman and Norman Y. Mineta.

The new victors were a Kiddie Corps, half of them under 40. Tom Downey of New York, just 25, was the youngest member of Congress since the early 1800s. “We were young, we looked weird. I can’t even believe we got elected,” Moffett would say two decades later.

On the surface, the election of 1972 and the election of 2004 seem different. By way of example, Kerry polled 40% in Mississippi, while McGovern got 19%. McGovern won Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Kerry won 19 states and the District of Columbia. McGovern got 17 electoral votes and Kerry got 251.

But there are still striking similarities. On June 17th 1972, the Watergate offices of the DNC were burglarized and the culprits arrested. Yet, the burglary had little effect on the election because the really incriminating revelations did not begin to come out until the following year.

On July 14 2003, Robert Novak exposed an undercover CIA officer, using two high level administrative members as his sources. The scandal had little effect of the election because the really incriminating revelations did not come out until the year after the election.

And when Watergate began to unravel it exposed a much larger pattern of abuse of power and corruption that led the populace to reject the Republican Party in droves. Just so now, the majority leaders of both the House and Senate are mired in scandal, and Plamegate threatens to expose a pattern of deceit and abuse of power that will shock the nation.

In 1972 Kissinger announced that ‘peace was at hand’ in Vietnam, but by 1974 it was increasingly clear that ‘defeat was at hand’. Likewise, in 2004 Bush assured us that the Iraqis were on their way to a stable democratic government. By November 2006, it will be clear just how false that hope was.

There is a real hope, even with all the gerrymandered seats, that the Democrats can pull off a sweeping victory in 2006, and drive many long-time Republicans out of their seats. But, could that have an effect on the Democratic Party as a whole?

The Watergate generations’s most visible success came almost immediately after their election. Unlike the 1994 class, the Watergate babies did not force a change of majority control in Congress: Democrats had been in charge in the House for two decades at the time. But the fresh faces did force a change within the ruling majority, which had long featured a power structure built on seniority and dominated by Southern “Dixiecrats.”

All but a handful of the freshmen lent their votes to the pre-existing reform movement within the House Democratic Caucus. This forced the committee barons to kowtow, seeking rank-and-file votes to stay in power. This irked F. Edward Hebert of Louisiana, the Armed Services Committee chairman. When he addressed the gathering of freshmen, he called them “boys and girls.” He later lost his chair by 19 votes, with all but a few freshman votes going against him. In all, only three sitting committee chairmen were deposed, but others got the message.

The answer is ‘yes’. We need young, idealistic, candidates to run for Congress in many of the seats that are going relatively uncontested. Right now it would be foolish to think any Republican is safe. Do you have what it takes? Do you know anyone that does?

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