Populism on the Campaign Trail

The Washington Post ran a curious editorial on the first Sunday in February. It asked why the Democrats think running on a populist message might bring them success in 2004 when it failed in 2000.

It raised legitimate questions about the commitment of top-tier candidates John Kerry and Howard Dean to the populist message, given their background and political histories. Both are from the upper crust and have spent much of their political lives making nice with business and even supporting some of the policies they now inveigh against.

But the Post editors define Kerry and Dean's populist message rather narrowly as "primitive business-bashing" and they are ignoring where their political muscle is coming from these days -- from men and women who fear for their livelihoods and their futures, even though the economy allegedly is revving up.

Kerry and Dean are running as populists because rank-and-file Democrats see the Bush administration as having little interest in the average voter. What Kerry and Dean are engaged in is not "primitive business-bashing," but a pointed and passionate critique of the current White House and its cozy relationship with the corporate community, a relationship that has resulted in bad policy and bad lawmaking from a corporate-authored energy policy, to a Medicare drug plan designed to gut Medicare and hand large amounts of cash to the drug and insurance companies.

The Right wants to portray this passion as Bush bashing, as an unnatural and unhealthy hatred for the sitting president and not as what it is: genuine disgust over the direction the president and the current leaders of Congress are taking this country.

How else to explain the 8,279 Republican primary voters in New Hampshire who wrote in one of the Democratic candidates on their ballots -- about 12% of the total?

John Nichols in The Nation called that "a significant number."

"In the 2000 general election, Bush beat Democrat Al Gore in New Hampshire by just 7,212 votes," he wrote. "Had Gore won New Hampshire, he would have become president, regardless of how the disputed Florida recount was resolved."

Add this to a Jan. 31 Newsweek poll that showed the president's approval rating at just 49% -- exactly the same number who now say they do not want to see him elected. And the same poll said that Kerry and Bush were locked in a dead heat, "Kerry pulling 48% of registered voters vs. Bush's 46%," Newsweek wrote in an online story.

This gives the Democrats an opening of which they must take advantage. The best way they can do this is to focus on the Bush agenda and its effects on middle and working-class Americans. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll in January, "58% of Americans said they believed Mr. Bush was more interested in protecting large corporations than ordinary people."

It's not hard to see why. As Nichols writes in his Nation piece, the "president's deficit-heavy fiscal policies, his support for free-trade initiatives that have undermined the country's manufacturing sector, and growing doubts about this administration's military adventurism abroad appear to have irked not just Democrats and independents, but also a growing number of Republicans."

It remains to be seen if Kerry, who as of this writing looks to be the likely nominee, can continue to convincingly bang the populist drum or whether the populist approach will resonate after the primary season, when the party's standard-bearer has to talk to people outside his own party. The key will be to keep the Democratic base intact and motivated, while bringing independent voters on board -- all the while withstanding fierce attacks from a White House with a massive re-election war chest and a lust for political battle and a Republican machinery that desperately wants to keep voters focused on anything but the loss of American jobs.

The key question, ultimately, is this: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? The answer, I think, has to be a resounding no.

Unless we change the man in the White House, we are not likely to be any better off four years from now.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey newspapers. Email

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