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A populist wind

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
5 February 2004

The shape of the Democratic race is sharpening, like a fleet in the fog. Last week, I noted the (relatively) high turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two stops on the long Democratic slog toward a viable presidential candidate. But I also noted how close we were to the beginning, how far from a conclusion.

We’re a lot more than a week closer to a conclusion now.

In the seven states that held primaries or caucuses on Tuesday, 3 February – choosing, all told, one in eight of the delegates to the Democratic convention – the turnout was mixed. There were record-breaking highs in South Carolina and Delaware, but a poor showing in Missouri, by far the most populous of the states at issue and one that matches the national profile quite closely. The moral is that revulsion against Bush is perhaps not a reliable fuel for turnout.

But another moral of 3 February is that the realist tendency continues to ride high. In five states, realism wore the name John Kerry; in one (South Carolina), John Edwards; in one (Oklahoma), Wesley Clark. Though journalistic conventional wisdom is that it’s now a Kerry-Edwards race, with Kerry hoping to sign Edwards to a number-two slot to give him a break in the otherwise unaccommodating South, Clark isn’t dead yet, having come in second in Arizona, New Mexico, and North Dakota, while Edwards ran second in Missouri and Oklahoma.

The prevailing mood among Democrats might be summarized by two slogans. One has reached button status: ABB, Anyone But Bush. Another appeared in Iowa: “Dated Dean, Married Kerry.”

Another tendency is evident and burgeoning. The Democratic front-runners are playing their populist cards for all they’re worth. John Kerry’s website (www.johnkerry.com) leads with: “From the moment I take office, I will stand up to the special interests and stand with hardworking families.” John Edwards promises: “Instead of valuing only wealth, as [Bush] does, I want our tax code to value the work that creates it.” Updating Benjamin Disraeli, he declares that “today, under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one: One America that does the work, another America that reaps the reward.”

Howard Dean’s site (www.deanforamerica.com) declares: “More than twenty years ago, Howard Dean turned his back on Wall Street and went to medical school so he could help people.” Wesley Clark is pushing his “outsider” status, although even he makes room – albeit awkwardly – for a populist invocation of “an America where everyone has a shot at the American dream, no matter where they're from, or what their background.”

In the seven 3 February contests, Joseph Lieberman, the least populist of the Democratic contenders, flopped so badly that by night’s end he took a gentleman’s bow and dismissed himself – without so much as a nasty word at the party’s populist thrust.

Populism, in other words, has become the Democrats’ common sense. All the tailwinds are blowing the Democrats toward that very “class warfare” that the Republicans, when they are not busy protecting corporate wealth from taxes, like to impute to the Democrats whether the Democrats are eligible for the accusation or not.

In 2000, Al Gore occasionally flirted with populist noises, declaring: “I’m for the people. They’re for the powerful.” You could argue that his populism was not only forced – it didn’t comport well with his record – but it was out of whack with the larger political mood. (I’m not saying that this argument was right, only that it was arguable.) In the end, the handlers who guided his doomed effort submerged this theme.

In 2004, the case for electoral populism is a lot stronger. The Republican tilt toward the country club is so flagrant that it invites passionate demurral. The wealthy are being stuffed with rewards and sheltered from taxes. Corporations happily exempt themselves from taxes when they set up shell headquarters in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. Jobless growth, growing poverty, and impoverished cities and countrysides may not make for headlines but they’re being lived. The bad news is registering.

* * *

What of the candidates themselves? A palpably weary John Kerry wobbled through his triumphant night performing his stolid version of presidentiality sans gaffe, sans whoop, sans smugness. The somber, sober Senator from Massachusetts has a war record that certifies one kind of gravitas, leavened with an antiwar record that certifies another kind. So while he does not generally leave roomfuls of admirers feeling that they’ve been graced by an angel, his great stone face does give him the solidity that his supporters believe will wear well in confrontation with a weakened Bush.

Kerry’s had three strong weeks in a row, which is a virtual eternity in presidential politicking and a cheering thought to the ABB legions. Still, many a Democrat this week wishes that Kerry’s long-faced gravitas could be merged with John Edwards’ buoyant, boyish eloquence. A reporter who has long covered Massachusetts politics told me that Kerry needs a “charisma bypass” – a popular opinion.

Next week, I’ll try to catch up with the burgeoning controversy over Bush’s premature departure from Air National Guard duty in 1972-73. In the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush’s lying is suddenly in play. How this revelatory scandal suddenly leaped into the nation’s view is a fascinating study in the restlessness of closeted skeletons.

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