WHAT A GREAT week for 19th century political parties! Physicians examining a dead Whig (Zachary Taylor) and partisans and journalists examining a live populist (Tom Harkin).
The Democrats held the first of the so-called "cattle shows," where would-be presidential candidates show rank-and-filers where's the beef. This was the Wisconsin Democratic Party State Convention at Milwaukee. Four prospects spoke to nearly a thousand delegates. They were Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Paul Tsongas, the former senator from Massachusetts.
Harkin, who is often referred to as a "latter-day populist," stole the show. Wisconsin Democrats are still enthralled by the old-time Democratic liberal themes. "Harkin," one reporter in Milwaukee wrote, "with his Iowa farm boy twang and his rough and ready delivery, exploited this to the fullest. . . in an impassioned populist appeal." He even used a notorious barnyard epithet, to the delegates' delight. Democrats love it when you talk dirty.
What is a Populist? Originally -- and capitalized -- it meant a member of a political party led by another Iowan, James B. Weaver, at the end of last century. Its members were poor farmers and low-income workers who felt left out by industrial expansion and were hardest hit by bad times. They had real grievances, as do their political descendants today, but there were never enough Populists to make any difference, just as there are not enough "latter-day populists" today to make any difference.
Many of the things they advocated -- direct election of senators, an end to the gold standard, for example -- were taken over by the Democrats and Republicans, but as an effective political force in their time Populists amounted to little.
Weaver ran for president as a Populist in 1892, getting only 8.5 percent of the popular vote and carrying only four small Western states.
Harkin's strength is with farmers and trade unionists, two groups getting smaller every year. A party that relies on them is not a party that is going to win national elections.
I think of Democrat Harkin as a white Jesse Jackson. Great stump speaker and crowd rouser, imaginative in pointing out American society's selfishness, unfairness and wrongheadedness -- and totally un-electable. But you know, a Harkin-Jackson or Jackson-Harkin ticket would be kind of fun.
They would lose big. Big. BIG. Maybe that doesn't matter. Who won't? The moderate star at Milwaukee was Governor Clinton. He may be the Democratic center's last best hope, as the better-known moderates quit (Sam Nunn), self-destruct (Chuck Robb, Doug Wilder) or get Hamlet's Disease (Al Gore). So how electable is Clinton? A recent Mason-Dixon Poll of Arkansas voters showed him ahead of all other Democrats, but losing -- this among home-state voters, mind you -- to George Bush by 64-27 percent in a hypothetical general election.