True Blue Populists
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Senator George Allen of Virginia is understandably shocked and despondent. Just a year ago, a National Review cover story declared that his “down-home persona” made him “quite possibly the next president of the United States.” Instead, his political career seems over.
And it wasn’t just macaca, or even the war, that brought him down. Mr. Allen, a reliable defender of the interests of the economic elite, found himself facing an opponent who made a point of talking about the problem of rising inequality. And the tobacco-chewing, football-throwing, tax-cutting, Social Security-privatizing senator was only one of many faux populists defeated by real populists last Tuesday.
Ever since movement conservatives took over, the Republican Party has pushed for policies that benefit a small minority of wealthy Americans at the expense of the great majority of voters. To hide this reality, conservatives have relied on wagging the dog and wedge issues, but they’ve also relied on a brilliant marketing campaign that portrays Democrats as elitists and Republicans as representatives of the average American.
This sleight of hand depends on shifting the focus from policy to personal style: John Kerry speaks French and windsurfs, so pay no attention to his plan to roll back tax cuts for the wealthy and use the proceeds to make health care affordable.
This year, however, the American people wised up.
True to form, some reporters still seem to be falling for the conservative spin. “If it walks, talks like a conservative, can it be a Dem?” asked the headline on a CNN.com story featuring a photo of Senator-elect Jon Tester of Montana. In other words, if a Democrat doesn’t fit the right-wing caricature of a liberal, he must be a conservative.
But as Robin Toner and Kate Zernike of The New York Times pointed out yesterday, what actually characterizes the new wave of Democrats is a “strong streak of economic populism.”
Look at Mr. Tester’s actual policy positions: yes to an increase in the minimum wage; no to Social Security privatization; we need to “stand up to big drug companies” and have Medicare negotiate for lower prices; we should “stand up to big insurance companies and support a health care plan that makes health care affordable for all Montanans.”
So what, aside from his flattop haircut, makes Mr. Tester a conservative? O.K., he supports gun rights. But on economic issues he’s clearly left of center, not just compared with the current Senate, but compared with current Democratic senators. The same can be said of many other victorious Democrats, including Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island, and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. All of these candidates ran on unabashedly populist platforms, and won.
What about Joe Lieberman? Like shipwreck survivors clinging to flotsam, some have seized on his reelection as proof of Americans’ continuing conservatism. But Mr. Lieberman won only through denial and deception, for example, by rewriting the history of his once-fervent support for the Iraq war and Donald Rumsfeld. He got two-thirds of the Republican vote, but managed to confuse enough Democrats about his positions to get over the top.
Last week’s populist wave, among other things, vindicates the populist direction that Al Gore took in the closing months of the 2000 campaign. But will this wave be reflected in the actual direction of the Democratic Party?
Not necessarily. Quite a few sitting Democrats have shown themselves nearly as willing as Republicans to bow to corporate interests. Consider the vote on last year’s draconian bankruptcy bill. Mr. Lieberman voted for cloture, cutting off debate and ensuring the bill’s passage; then he voted against the bill, a meaningless gesture that let him have it both ways. Thirteen other Democratic senators also voted for cloture, including Joe Biden, who has just announced his candidacy for president.
The first big test of the new Democratic populism will come over reform of the 2003 prescription drug law. Democrats have pledged to repeal the clause in that law preventing Medicare from negotiating lower drug prices. But the fine print of how they do that is crucial: Medicare reform could be a mere symbolic gesture, or it could be a real reform that eliminates the huge implicit subsidies the program currently gives drug and insurance companies.
Are the newly invigorated Democrats ready to offer a real change in this country’s direction? We’ll know in a few months.