Monday, January 26, 2004

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When populism can work

One of the things that struck me the night of the Iowa caucuses was that all of the Democratic candidates were using the same kind of populist themes of "special interests vs. your interests" that worked so well poorly for Al Gore in 2000. And George W. Bush is always at the center of those special interests.

I've defended the administration from the more outlandish set of charges. However, stories like the one in today's Chicago Tribune on Boeing's fueling tanker follies are going to hit home this fall. The deal would have let the Pentagon lease airplanes from Boeing to bolster its own refeuling fleet. By leasing rather than buying, the Defense Department was reducing costs in the short run but vastly increasing them in the long run. Boeing got its way, however:

Mitch Daniels, then President Bush's budget director and now the Republican candidate for Indiana governor, thought the tanker deal violated government accounting rules.

"The central problem was that the tankers were not on [the] Defense Department's wish list until somebody [at Boeing] came up with this idea," an administration source said.

Faced with Daniels' objections, Boeing did what only a handful of American businesses can do: It went over Daniels' head and straight to Bush. Through a series of meetings among the president and his staff and key members of Congress--including House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)--Boeing applied enough pressure at the top to push its contract through in May.

Today, however, those hardball tactics have backfired. The lobbying campaign is the subject of criminal, congressional and Pentagon investigations....

Inside the White House budget office, the political pressure applied by Boeing was keenly felt.

"What made this thing to so very difficult was that it had enormous political overtones," said one budget office veteran involved in the issue. "I'm talking about Boeing mustering up every congressman who had five employees in his district and beating on everyone in sight."

If you read the whole thing, you'll see that Democratic as well as Republican congressmen lobbied vigorously for the deal, so this ain't just the executive branch and it ain't just Republicans. And, to be fair, the system worked eventually, with the contract being withdrawn.

Still, this is the kind of story that makes the populism angle work. And it's going to hurt the majority party way more than the minority party.

Populism always scares me because it's joined at the hip to trade protectionism. If the economy continues to struggle with job creation, however, I fear it will be a more potent tactic than in 2000.

posted by Dan on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM


The reason that this line of attack never works is twofold. 1)Everyone is a special interest. The NRA, the ACLU, small business owners, farmers, unions. If you add all of them up you get the whole country. The only way to take 'special interests' out of the equation is to take everyone out of the equation. 2) Demonizing the rich never works in America, because everyone is trying to get rich. Duh. I think one way that America differs from Europe is that European elites and the wealthy are much further removed from the 'common man'. Most Americans work for a wealthy person, interact with them. Every boss I've ever had has been a millionaire. Now why should I want to gouge the guy that hands me my paycheck? I know where he's going to get that money from... me!

posted by: Mark Buehner on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

Is it true that Gore did poorly?

If it hadn't been for the butterfly ballot, a complete 'accident' he would be President right now and nobody would be arguing he did badly in 2000.

Or is the argument that Gore should have done much, much better given the economic conditions? Maybe so but that seems to ignore the 50/50 split we have seen in elections prior to 2000.

posted by: GT on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

"Populism always scares me because it's joined at the hip to trade protectionism. If the economy continues to struggle with job creation, however, I fear it will be a more potent tactic than in 2000. "

There’s a splendid reason why Democrats listen closely to guys like Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers who wrote --Why the White Working Class Still Matters.-- Job protectionism is an important issue in many areas of this country. I can provide you with an excellent macroeconomic argument on how allowing the gods of creative destruction to their duty is best for the overall economy. Sadly, though, I’m incapable of adequately placating a 48 year old blue collar worker who is certain to lose his well paying union job. He’s usually screwed! This guy is tempted to punch me in the nose, give me the middle finger, and accuse me of having a less than platonic relationship with my mother. He primarily worries about himself---and not the ultimate good of the whole nation.

posted by: David Thomson on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

Gulp, I made a slight mistake: the above mentioned title of Teixeira's and Rogers' book is -America's Forgotten Majority.- "Why the White Working Class Still Matters" is the subtitle.

posted by: David Thomson on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

From Eric Alterman, today:

And while the pundits and the SCLM are married to this DLC-friendly notion that Gore’s populism, beginning with his convention speech, lost him the election. In fact the opposite is true. The speech, compared by that great man of the people George Will to “sauerkraut ice cream,” gave Gore a thirteen-point bounce and landed him briefly ahead of Bush. It was only when he began to play for the middle again that his lead dissipated by enough to allow the Supreme Court to hand Bush the election despite his having lost both Florida and the national count.

posted by: Anno-nymous on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the tanker deal first get started in 1999? That would put it in the Clinton administration, though it was still inexcusable for the currently administration/Congress not to kill the deal early and often.

posted by: Jeff Medcalf on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

"Populism always scares me because it's joined at the hip to trade protectionism."

Like bariffs & tarriers on steel?

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

GT is right; the case against Gore was that an incumbent Vice President at a time of peace and prosperity who was unconnected to the most politically damaging of the scandals afflicting his former chief should have won easily against a Republican candidate with many weaknesses.

Gore's populist approach was foolish because it made him sound like he was running against the people in power, as if it were 1992 and not 2000, and because running on peace and prosperity when you've got it is like running the football -- you do it until the other guy proves he can stop it, because if he can't you'll win every time.

Why would populism work this year when it did not in 2000? Because this is 2004, and things have changed. Democrats are running against the people in power now. The boom is gone; some sectors of the economy are in real trouble -- including, coincidentally, some of those that were doing spectacularly well the last time we elected a President. Also, just on a personal level, Gore was a lousy candidate. He seemed out of touch with ordinary voters because he was, and appeared calculating and prone to, ahem, gratuitous self-serving exaggerations as to his life and place in history for the same reason. The Democrats could nominate someone that stiff and self-absorbed again -- John Kerry has real potential in this regard -- but the odds are against it. Any message, including a populist one, will go farther with a better messenger.

posted by: Zathras on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

> Any message, including a populist one, will go
> farther with a better messenger.

John Edwards! He's got to be "Shrub's" worst nightmare among the Democratic candidates. Is he too inexperienced? Well, "the chimp" didn't exactly have a stellar track record in 2000 either -- and Edwards actually has been trotting out positive ideas and proposals during this campaign in true Clintonian fashion. Or is Edwards supposed to be a member of the liberal upper-class elite? It is not very difficult to tell which candidate hails from Yale, when you compare their bios.

If it's Bush vs. Edwards, the former will have to launch a $200-million negative campaign while pandering to his base of Southern social conservatives and business interests since he is so unpopular with Democrats and increasingly falling out of favor with independents as well (check the gradual evolution of his post-9/11 poll numbers). He will have to stress negative things such as the threat of terrorism, against Edwards' sunshine populism.

This could be an interesting election after all!


posted by: Marcus Lindroos on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

The reason populism doesn't sell in American politics is because (a) the politicians are all members of the elite class they pretend to bash, and the hypocrisy is pretty transparent, and (b) in America, everyone dreams of getting rich and knows the gates are not closed. We don't resent the rich because we want to be rich, and know that we (and our kids) have a real shot at it.

posted by: R C Dean on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

all of the Democratic candidates were using the same kind of populist themes of "special interests vs. your interests" that worked so well poorly for Al Gore in 2000

"Poorly", except for the tiny detail that Gore won the election.

No, I take your point: Gore ought to have won the election by considerably more. The illegal tactics used by Jeb Bush in Florida might have gotten Bush the result the Bush clan wanted, if not the result Floridian voters wanted, but Florida wouldn't have been a key state if Gore had done better elsewhere.

I don't doubt that given that illegal tactics worked in 2000, and those who practiced them got away with it, there is an element in the Republican party who are fully intending to use them again for this year's election. I hope, of course, that the next Democratic President (whether Dean, Kerry, or Clark) wins by such a margin that illegal tactics won't work in any case. But if it's necessary to call in the UN to provide electoral observers, the 2004 elections must be fair. There's no doubt that a majority of voters want "Anyone But Bush" - the question is whether they will be allowed to have their say, or whether, as in Florida, the losing candidate will succeed in getting the electoral college votes.

posted by: Jesurgislac on 01.26.04 at 10:54 AM [permalink]

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