John Dingell: Last of the New Deal Democrats?

The dean of the House supported FDR-style social policies and muscular government regulation, but he also backed gun rights and kept a culturally conservative outlook.
Speaker Sam Rayburn swears John Dingell into office. (John Dingell)

John Dingell's decision to retire—citing his age and the "obnoxious" state of the House of Representatives—has elicited a flood of statistical factlets.

For example: Of the 434 current members of the House, nearly half—214 of them—weren't even born when Dingell was sworn into office in December 1955. Or that Dingell is the longest-serving member of either house in congressional history. Or that 2015 will mark the first time since 1933 that either John Dingell Sr. or Jr. was not in the House (though the congressman's wife, Debbie, is widely expected to run for the seat). Or that he was on the floor (as a page) on December 8, 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt delivered his "day that will live in infamy" speech.

But what's interesting about the 87-year-old Michigan Democrat isn't that he's superannuated, it's that his superannuation means he represents a kind of politics that doesn't really exist anymore, anywhere. It's a mix of New Deal-style social politics, support for muscular government regulation, affection for labor, respect for business, and attachment to conservative social values.

Universal healthcare has been a family cause since 1933, when Dingell Sr. first proposed it. The younger Dingell had a hand in passing Medicare and Medicaid; when Obamacare passed the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi used a gavel loaned to her by Dingell, who had used the same hammer in 1965 when he presided over the passage of Medicare. He helped write the Endangered Species Act and worked with Representative Henry Waxman to pass the Clean Air Act.

Yet even though Dingell was such an institution on the Energy and Environment Committee that its hearing room is named in his honor, Waxman defeated him in a 2008 race for committee chair, boosted by a faction of Democrats who felt Dingell wasn't progressive enough on environmental issues and was too close to the big auto companies in his home town of Detroit. Dingell is a former NRA board member and boasts an A+ rating from the organization; the pro-choice group NARAL says he votes against it on abortion issues 81 percent of the time. Dingell was also an outspoken opponent of NAFTA.

Who represents this heritage now? Not President Obama, clearly a different breed of Democrat, less enamored of big government and more activist on social issues; after all, he's shown a willingness to cut entitlements modestly and wants stricter gun control. Not Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, nor any of the major names mentioned as potential presidential candidates in 2016: Not Hillary Clinton, Andrew Cuomo, or Martin O'Malley. Elizabeth Warren shares some of the same ideas about government, but doesn't have the culturally conservative streak. Some midwestern Democrats like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio are skeptical of free-trade agreements, but Brown is more reliably socially liberal, too. 

The closest thing might be Brian Schweitzer of Montana, a populist who opposes NAFTA and is a strong backer of guns, but Schweitzer hails from a different strain of Plains Democrats and tends to espouse individualism rather than a social-democratic New Deal model.

Many tributes to Dingell emphasize that he's an old-school breed of legislator that is gradually disappearing from Capitol Hill. But that shouldn't obscure the fact that what distinguished Dingell during his 30 terms wasn't just the way he did things—it was the things he backed.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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