Can Economic Populism — or “Authenticity” — Save the Democrats?

Last week, some of the Democrats’ most engaged proponents of pushing the Democrats leftwards — including Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana and author Thomas Franks — gathered to promote economic populism at a panel discussion (scroll down to see video excerpts) about David Sirota’s new book, Hostile Takeover.
The book is a useful compendium of the way big-money interests have corrupted our political process, leading to the screwing of the public through such legislation as our energy policy and Medicare Part D.

But Sirota and other progressives are spending too much of their ire targeting the Democratic Leadership Council as corporate sell-outs. In fact, the DLC, even if there’s a reasonable critique to be made of their free-trade policy, offers a range of sensible ideas on security, health and the economy that may have a better shot at Congressional passage and public support than some of the ideas pushed by Sirota. Remember, only two centrist Southern Democrats, such as Clinton and Carter, have been elected to the presidency since 1964. (Full disclosure: I’m a freelance policy analyst for the DLC-affiliated Progressive Policy Institute, and did a scathing critique of the Bush administration’s mental health policy last year — hardly a flack for “Republican lite” policies.)

When I asked Sirota and the other panelists about previous Democratic presidential successes and past failures of populist messages nationally, he contended, “Any candidate who makes it clear that he will stand against big-money interests will inspire people on [their] authenticity beyond economic issues.” Will that be enough? Walter Mondale and George McGovern believed what they said on issues, too, and that didn’t seem to inspire people to vote for them. (The American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson, pointed out, rightly, that Clinton, especially, campaigned to the left of where he actually governed, thus raising his hopes that a full-fledged populist could win the presidency.)

Yet Governor Schweitzer, a straight-talking Democrat who has won in a red state, contended it was the weakness of our candidates in articulating populist messages that doomed them. “A lot of candidates do the focus groups and pick the top five issues that test well,” he noted. “They have to believe the stuff. Leaders don’t lead by polling you. This is why we have to have issues presented in a way that validates character — and explain it in a way that they’re sure about me as a person.” In other words, authentic candidates who strongly present their case can win election support, even if people don’t agree with every position they take — as long as they trust you as a person. That’s the approach Bush used in his first election campaign, no matter how much we may have disliked his phony down-home act.

Schweitzer argued, “Our candidates haven’t touched our heart — and we haven’t done that since Bill Clinton. The last two candidates for president just recited the polling. Until we find a candiate who can touch hears, we’ll lose elections, one after another.”

But even writers for The American Prospect, which co-sponsored the discussion, have raised questions about the new quest for authenticity among progressives. Under a posting called “Authenticity is Stupdi,” Sam Rosenfeld
argues, “Authenticity is a pointless thing to care about in politics. Obsessing over the personal motivations and supposed core beings of individual political actors is, in fact, close to the opposite of what politics is actually all about. Institutional arrangements and historical contingencies largely determine political (and thus policy) outcomes, and outcomes are what matter.”

But it wouldn’t hurt if the Democrats offered stronger, more personable and more courageous candidates. And why does it take political losses for Al Gore and John Kerry to finally find their voices? After insisting throughout his election campaign that he didn’t regret his vote to give the President the authority to go to war against Iraq, he finally conceded casually last month on “Meet the Press” that it was a mistake to vote for the war. Here’s the exchange:

MR. RUSSERT: Let me go back to October of 2002, when you stood up on the floor of the Senate and said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, biological, chemical, the means to deliver them perhaps to the U.S., potentially nuclear weapons, and then voted to authorize the president to go to war. Your running mate, the man you selected to be the next president of the United States, John Edwards, was on this program. He wrote an op-ed piece first in The Washington Post, and he wrote this: “I was wrong. Almost three years ago we went into Iraq to remove what we were told – and what many of us believed and argued – was a threat to America. But in fact we now know that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction when our forces invaded Iraq in 2003. The intelligence was deeply flawed and, in some cases, manipulated to fit a political agenda. It was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002. I take responsibility for that mistake.” Was it a mistake for you to vote for the war in 2002?

SEN. KERRY: Absolutely. I’ve said so many times, many times since then. [Note: except when it counted, during the Presidential primaries and national campaign, when you might have inspired the Democratic base to turn out in larger numbers for you. But I’ll let that pass].

MR. RUSSERT: And you take responsibility for it?

SEN. KERRY: You better believe I take responsibility for it. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m here today, Tim. You know, last night, late at night, I went down to the Wall, the Vietnam Wall. I was amazed by the numbers of people there, 10:30, 11:00 at night, it’s incredible. You walk down that ramp, and as you go down it gets deeper and deeper, and the wall gets higher and higher, and you see these names after names after names; thousands, tens of thousands. They were added to that wall. They died after our leaders knew the policy wasn’t working. And I believe I have a moral responsibility, as we all do in America, to get this right for our soldiers.

Of all the losing candidates we’ve fielded — Dukakis, Mondale, Gore, Kerry — which one was the worst? That’s not an easy call, but as comedian Lewis Black said about Kerry, in a mean-spirit, politically-incorrect comment, “What’s wrong with you Democrats? Having John Kerry lose to George Bush was like having a normal person lose in the Special Olympics.”

Kerry talked up populism, but not in an effective way that anybody noticed. Can we find an effective candidate out there who is a)charismatic and telegenic b)courageous and c) can effectively articulate a populist message?

I’m willing to give it a chance, even if it hasn’t worked on the national level before. (Sirota has made a compelling case that it can work at the local and state level.) . But with campaign fund-raising laws rigged to favor corporate interests — even with public financing of presidential elections — it’s going to be hard finding such a bold candidate who can summon the resources to prevail. Any suggestions?


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