Democrats and the red meat of populism

Robert Kuttner

July 23, 1991|By Robert Kuttner

ECONOMIC populism keeps haunting the Democratic Party and perplexing political commentators. Conservative analyst Kevin Phillips keeps commending it as tonic for liberals. Democrats keep flirting with it and then backing away.

In 1988, Rep. Richard Gephardt ran for the Democratic presidential nomination as a fairly raw populist, speaking out for the economically stressed common American and even appealing to economic jingoism. His pitch initially impressed Iowa voters, but he was lambasted by businesses and high-minded editorialists alike. He ran out of money and his campaign fizzled.

Contemplating another run in 1992, Gephardt sought to clean up his act. After initially opposing the U.S.-Mexico free-trade pact as an assault on the American worker, Gephardt reversed course and assumed a statesmanlike mantle. He helped the Bush administration win negotiating authority for the trade pact, but vowed to fight another day if the deal lacked labor or social safeguards.

A century ago, the Democratic Party was nearly taken over by populists of the more primitive sort. A rival Peoples Party, seeking economic justice for farmers and workers, came close to displacing the Democrats. William Jennings Bryan, as the candidate of both parties in 1896, attempted to co-opt the populist appeal, but lost badly.

In the interim, populism acquired a bad name. At its most primitive, it has been racist, anti-foreign, anti-business, and given to eccentric share-the-wealth schemes. Populism became associated with the likes of Huey Long and George Wallace.

Yet at its apex in this century, the Democratic Party succeeded precisely by embracing a kind of mainstream pocketbook populism -- an advocacy of the economic interests of ordinary working people. Roosevelt's New Deal, Truman's Fair Deal, Kennedy's New Frontier and Johnson's Great Society all attracted voters mainly because they championed economic aspirations.

The ingredients included Social Security, Medicare, the GI bill, FHA loans, public universities, support for trade unionism -- all instruments to help ordinary people up the economic ladder. Also included were fairly progressive taxation and regulatory limits on the predations of concentrated wealth. It all powerfully identified the Democrats with working families.

This kind of populism is a far more subtle brand of class warfare. It is seldom explicitly anti-rich -- and wisely so because most Americans want to become rich. It is not so much anti-business -- voters understand that businesses mean jobs -- as it is pro-employee and against business excess.

American voters are utterly schizophrenic on the subject of wealth. They covet it -- and resent it. You see it in the pop culture. Hollywood invariably portrays rich people as ( undeserving buffoons who are wealthy mainly because they are lucky and whose values stink.

This summer's case in point is the new hit movie "Regarding Henry." A successful yuppie lawyer, played by Harrison Ford, is an utter pig, until a brain injury causes him to lose his memory and revise his values. The film, as they say, resonates. At the end, Henry is a great guy -- sensitive, compassionate, loving to his wife and daughter. What's not clear is how he will make a

living.

Economic populism is political dynamite. Handled just right, it can blow away the country-club Republican opposition. Handled wrong, it can blow up in the Democrats' face. Pollsters keep finding that voters are hungry for a candidate who will battle for ordinary people.

Yet, for a decade, Democratic presidential candidates have steered clear of any kind of populism, with disastrous results. Walter Mondale ran as the green-eyeshade candidate who would balance the government's books. He lost 49 states. The technocratic Michael Dukakis . . . well, you know the story.

What does economic populism mean today? It means identifying with the well-placed worries of the struggling middle class. Working families are justifiably worried about vanishing health insurance, unaffordable child care, aging parents, unemployed offspring, unavailable housing. It's also their turn for some tax relief. Republicans are not delivering.

Democrats keep flirting with this stuff, but they haven't quite turned it into populist red meat. They're still hung up on courting business favor, and on demonstrating fiscal rectitude.

Paul Tsongas, the only declared Democratic candidate, tries to have it both ways. He attacks trade barriers overseas, in the ferocious manner of the 1988-model Gephardt, while baiting his fellow Democrats for being insufficiently pro-business. Not much populism here.

Ironically, the undeclared candidate with the best purchase on such populist appeals as secure health care, middle-class tax relief and family support is a senator with a most unpopulist name, Rockefeller. He's no ordinary fella, but at least he can't be bought. Mario Cuomo, who puts it together better than anyone else, appears to be sitting this race out.

The Democrats had better think all of this through, and soon. Distance from the common American remains the one major area of vulnerability for George Herbert Walker Bush. To say nothing of J. Danforth Quayle.

Robert Kuttner is an economist based in Massachusetts.

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