A Lot to Learn

The new Democratic majority must avoid making rookie mistakes.

On occasion, a politician will commit a gaffe so damaging that it jeopardizes his reelection prospects and requires a public apology. In freshman Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen's case, that moment came within weeks of his swearing-in. According to an account in a local alternative newspaper, Kagen bragged to a group of peace activists about his eventful first visit to the White House, where he allegedly menaced presidential adviser Karl Rove in a bathroom, confronted Vice President Dick Cheney and then insulted President Bush in a reception line by intentionally referring to First Lady Laura Bush by the wrong name.

The White House strongly denied the congressman's version of the events; Kagen himself backed away from his remarks when other news outlets sought to verify them, at first refusing to confirm or deny anything, then dismissing the episode as a "playful experience."

Before long though, the controversy became such a distraction that Kagen, an allergist who had never held elected office before, could no longer sidestep it. He issued a letter of apology to his constituents, writing that he was sorry for "handling this situation as I did."

It was an inauspicious start to his congressional career, and one that will likely haunt him when he comes up for reelection. Yet the Walter Mitty-style political fantasy will not be the only obstacle confronting Kagen in 2008: It turns out the Food and Drug Administration had formally warned him in December 2006 that his Wisconsin-based allergy practice appeared to be in violation of a federal law that requires a license for the manufacture and sale of allergen vaccines.

Kagen's rookie mistakes highlight one of the difficulties the new Democratic House majority faces. Among the large class of Democratic freshmen are a number of inexperienced newcomers who, like Kagen, are in need of political seasoning. The extent to which these greenhorns can limit their blunders could determine whether Democrats retain the House.

It's an unusual predicament, rooted in the unique circumstances of the 2006 elections, when a wave of revulsion against congressional Republicans swept in 42 new Democrats, some of whom might not have won in a typical election year. The problem they face is that the underlying political characteristics of their districts remain unchanged; in the absence of another strong Democratic tail wind in 2008, those places might be inclined to revert to old voting habits.

That leaves little margin for error, yet in the opening weeks of the 110th Congress a few of the newcomers seemed unaware of this fact. Take Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., another first-time officeholder who pulled off one of the biggest upsets in 2006, knocking off a Republican incumbent in a Republican-friendly district.

In her first week in Congress, Boyda found herself on the defensive after making an ill-advised and patronizing comment during a nationally televised interview. Boyda, who opposes the idea of a troop surge in Iraq, nevertheless said she would vote to fund a troop increase. When the ABC News reporter noted that the recent election indicated that voters want a new direction, Boyda responded, "They should have thought about that before they voted for President Bush, not once, but twice."

Since her district is among those that twice voted for Bush, her remark didn't go over so well back home. Within a week, she publicly apologized, chalking it up to "first week jitters."

Even before her comments, political strategists agreed that Boyda would be among the most vulnerable incumbents in 2008. Fortunately for Boyda, the Democratic House leadership seems to understand the precariousness of their freshmen cohort and is actively engaged in initiatives designed to bolster their standing and to school them in the art of politics. Boyda, for example, was tapped to serve as the lead sponsor of the high-profile ethics bill to revoke the pensions of convicted members of Congress.

Charles Mahtesian is editor of The Almanac of American Politics.

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