Sixteen years ago this morning, I woke up from a night sleeping on the floor of the Capitol Hill townhouse my friends and I rented. The year was 1994 and a handful of us ended the previous evening watching election returns on CNN.
Though future election nights would consist of cell phone calls from colleagues on campaigns across the country, blackberry news updates and web sites with continuous exit polling information, in 1994 our long night ended clinging to any update we could get our hands on, hoping that somehow there might be some good news to report and that Senator Diane Feinstein could at least pull off a victory against Representative Michael Huffington in the last race of the night.
I woke up early the morning after the 1994 election, the television was still on, my body aching, my friends and housemates lying motionless, sleeping huddled around the television. I opened the front door and looked at the U.S. Capitol, a building that had always provided me with inspiration, and I swore it looked different. I bent down to pick up the Washington Post, but I already knew what it would say. We had lost the House. We had lost the Senate.
I looked at that newspaper, rolled up and wrapped in a plastic bag, for a long while. I had graduated from College only seven month earlier. Today would be my last day interning at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. I thought about the campaigns I worked on during the 1994 political cycle. I worried about my future. Most of all, I asked myself how could things have gone so badly for Democrats in just two years. I decided I would leave the newspaper in that plastic bag. I did not want to read it, and I made a vow not to open up the bag until the day we won back both the House and Senate.
The evening before, Election Day, started in Wilmington, Delaware. The DSCC had loaned my friend and me to the Charlie Oberly Senate campaign, the Delaware Democrat running against Republican Bill Roth. At that age, I had no idea what a Roth IRA was, nor had I ever been to Delaware before, but I was very excited. While in Washington, DC stuffing envelopes at the DSCC, I saw optimistic polls that showed Oberly was in striking distance of Roth. I would later find out that those kind of "internal" Committee polls are skewed to help fundraising efforts in bleak election years. Though my friend and I were political novices, I had worked for the Joel Hyatt Senate campaign, the Democrat running for Senate in Ohio while in College earlier in 1994. As we drove up to Delaware I spoke nostalgically of "campaign life," telling him how great this experience will be. Once in Delaware, the mood was much different. I felt like Charlie Sheen in Platoon, discovering Vietnam for the first time. It was so bad that a few days later, when polls closed on Election Day at 8:00 pm EST, CNN was comfortable enough to project immediately that Roth had won reelection. It was the first projection of the night.
Without saying a word, my friend and I looked at each other and simply left, we just wanted to get out of Delaware and head back to DC. Racing down I-95 South, we listened to returns on the radio. Senator Kennedy, from my home state of Massachusetts, was holding on to his political life. Senator Wolford, who in 1991 proved the Reagan Revolution was over, had already lost. Joel Hyatt, the man I had worked for earlier in 1994 in Ohio had lost. Now Mario Cuomo, who gave the first political speech I could remember at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, the speech that inspired me at 12 years old to get involved in politics, had lost! One by one, my idols were crushed.
In between news updates, there was just silence between me and my friend. I thought about the job offer I received while in Delaware on the campaign, the day before the election. It was a political appointee position, a "schedule-c," where I would have been an assistant to a Deputy Director of some government agency. When I turned down the job, the man offering me the job told me I was nuts. Holding the phone to my ear, trying to hear him over the voices of Oberly campaign volunteers and staff, he screamed "Do you not get it! Democrats are going to lose big time tomorrow. You are never going to find a job with a Democrat after tomorrow. You are making the biggest mistake of your life!" I turned down the job because I did not want to be someone's assistant, I wanted to be a press secretary, but now in the car, I replayed the conversation over and over in my mind. As we arrived back to DC I could not believe what I had done. I was now jobless, with no prospects in sight.
It must have been about 10 pm when we raced into Democratic Party Headquarters on South Capitol Street. We arrived to what we thought was would be an election return viewing party, but to our shock, no one was there. The headquarters were completely empty. All that remained was an open bar, television screens, a room full of popped balloons and my fellow interns from the DSCC. We all took the remaining bottles of alcohol and decided to head to our group house in NE Capitol Hill. As I entered the house I was greeted with multiple phone messages from members of the college fraternity I had just graduated from, all singing and laughing at the Democrat's demise.
My friends and I sat there blankly staring at the television. I kept trying to think of the positive. I thought back to Election Day in 1988, when my high school history teacher, seeing that I was upset about Michael Dukakis's presidential loss, stopped me to explain the importance of the "checks and balance" system. It did not make me feel better in 1988, and in 1994 the thought still did not provide me with any comfort.
The election of 1994 was crushing. I was angry because I felt this was my generation's time to contribute. I cried for the great politicians who I respected and who now lost. I was tired, having worked long hours to help Democrats get elected. I felt stupid, like there was a joke I did not get or a test I had not studied for. And I was worried, not only about being right out of college with no job, but deeply concerned for the future of our country.
Beyond all of those emotions was the fundamental frustration of how a President who I loved was punished because he had made tough choices.
That was sixteen years ago, but like all things, time adds perspective and context.
I would go on to find job and become a press secretary on Capitol Hill.
The friends I shared the 1994 election night with would become my best friends. Without them, I would not have met my wife and would not have the great life I have today.
Senator Feinstein would go one to beat Representative Huffington in 1994, and his wife would become one of the most important leaders in progressive politics.
Joel Hyatt, the 1994 Senate candidate from Ohio that I worked for, would go on to do many great things, including start a television network called Current TV, where I now, coincidently, work.
The person managing that 1994 senate campaign in Delaware, David Plouffe, would go on to run arguably the greatest political campaign in history and become one of the most important political strategist in Democratic politics.
Democrats eventually did win back the House and Senate (and though I had left politics, I did pull out that 1994 Election Day newspaper and opened it.)
Most of all, President Clinton, would eventually be rewarded and beloved for making those tough decisions. And the policies he fought for would bring unrivaled prosperity in this country.
Today looks grim for Democrats. Maybe it looks particularly grim for young idealistic Democratic staffers and interns, but today the future begins. Historic perspective is a luxury I did not have in 1994. I am glad I have it today.
Matthew Frankel is a former Democratic Press Secretary and Intern. He currently serves as Senior Vice President for Communications at Current TV.