When Bob Matsui was elected to Congress in 1978, neither he nor the rest of us could imagine how much politics would change during his time in Washington.
In the mid-1970s, Democrats seemed ascendant. Watergate had discredited Richard Nixon's administration, and the 1974 election brought in a raft of "Watergate babies," reform-minded young Democrats impatient to change their party and their country.
In 1976 Jimmy Carter was elected president. Coming out of the South, with few connections to his party's traditional constituencies, Carter might fairly be seen as the first New Democrat. Indeed, he was elected in large part because he appealed to voters who had been straying from the Democrats for many years -- white Southerners, especially his fellow evangelical Christians.
Two years later, Matsui came to town. And two years after that, Ronald Reagan was elected president and swung American history in an entirely different direction.
Matsui's death on New Year's Day was a melancholy way to open what will be another very consequential political year. The 63-year-old California Democrat was poised to play a central role in 2005's most important domestic struggle: President Bush's proposal to partially privatize Social Security. Matsui's sudden passing, the result of a rare stem cell disorder, leaves his party without one of its most informed foes of privatization.
Born on the eve of America's entry into World War II, Matsui spent the first years of his life in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. The experience seared him but did nothing to rob him of his warmth. I got to know Matsui after I had taken issue with him over welfare reform. Matsui was a good person to talk politics with, because he believed what he had to say but was also open to other people's ideas. You don't see much of that these days.
What we argued about shows how much the world has changed. At a 1994 hearing, Matsui savaged David Ellwood, an assistant secretary of health and human services and one of President Clinton's point men on welfare reform. Matsui was a skeptic about welfare reform, particularly Clinton's proposal to place a two-year limit on welfare cash payments. Matsui questioned Ellwood's motives and attacked him for referring to welfare as a "check-writing system." The phrase, Matsui said, insulted poor women and children.
"I don't think that David Ellwood would have gone before a group of senior citizens and said that Social Security is a big check-writing machine," Matsui said at the time. "But it's easy to attack welfare recipients that way."
My difference with Matsui was twofold: I admired Ellwood as a genuine advocate for the poor and thought Matsui had treated him unfairly. And I felt (and still think) that Democrats should have enacted welfare reform in Clinton's first two years, while they still had a majority in Congress. They could have shaped a more generous welfare-to-work program than the one that eventually emerged from a Republican Congress in 1996.
Over the years, as we talked, Matsui conceded that Democrats may have missed an opportunity on welfare, even as I came to admire Matsui's boldness in speaking up for poor people. After all, how many members of Congress these days would go to bat for welfare recipients?
Another cause dear to Matsui was free trade. Here, too, his thinking evolved. He never stopped supporting open trade, but he grew more and more worried over how little was being done to help American workers battered by the global economy. He believed in the market. He also believed in government's role as a buffer for the most vulnerable against the market's vagaries. That's why he would have been such a powerful spokesman this year on Social Security. It is a fundamental battle over whether we decide to build on and reform the policies of the New Deal, as 1970s Democrats such as Matsui hoped to do, or to scrap them and move back to the social policies of the 19th century, disguised as 21st-century innovations.
When Matsui and his energetic young colleagues came to Washington in the post-Watergate years, they did not do so intending to play defense. They pushed through reforms to cleanse politics and clean up the environment. In the 1990s they demonstrated that, contrary to attacks on their kind as big-spending liberals, they could be fiscally responsible and able stewards of the economy. That's the achievement in which Matsui shared. In time, a new generation of reformers will come to Washington to roll the stone up the hill again.