Populism Rising

"The oil companies, the predatory student loan companies, the insurance companies, and the drug companies have had seven years of a president who stands up for them. I intend to be a president who stands up for all of you."

The last ad of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, the populist battler from Minnesota? Not quite -- it's a Hillary Clinton ad in Ohio. The candidate Fortune magazine hailed as Wall Street's favorite is even more populist on the stump.

Or consider this riff: "We need a president who will listen not just to Wall Street but to Main Street." The reason, the speaker warns, is that powerful special interests have taken over Washington. "It's a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and [like with] China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits, but none for our environment or our workers who've seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear -- workers whose right to organize and unionize has been under assault for the last eight years."

John Edwards in full swing in Iowa? No, this is Barack Obama, the "hope monger," in Janesville, Wisconsin.

John Edwards is gone, but his populist rhetoric and agenda hold center stage in the Democratic presidential race. The Democratic race has come down to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, two relatively cautious moderates, tutored by Citi-group's Robert Rubin and his Wall Street-funded Hamilton Project, who have nonetheless both become unlikely populist scourges as the primary season rolled on.

Their conversion elicits a well-grounded cynicism. To the press, it's not populism reborn but situational ethics. The rhetoric ratcheted up as the primaries hit Wisconsin and Ohio, industrial states battered by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Obama had to cut into Clinton's hold on blue-collar families; Clinton had to consolidate and expand her margins in that base.

No question that Midwest voters are looking for a populist champion. Ohio suffers what Jesse Jackson termed the "trifecta of devastation." It has lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000. It never enjoyed the housing boom but is nonetheless the center of the collapse. In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development sold homes in Cleveland for less than the price of a latte at Starbucks. The state is disfigured by the long-term poverty of its inner cities and rural Appalachian counties. Even John McCain started talking about creating jobs when he got to Ohio.

But the situation generating this populism isn't limited to Ohio. America has lost one in five manufacturing jobs under George Bush. The median wage has lost ground, while prices in basics -- gas, home heating, health-care premiums, college tuitions -- have soared. One in 10 homes across the country are now "under water," worth less than their mortgages. Nationally, we have to borrow or sell off assets worth $2 billion a day to foreigners to cover our trade deficits.

This can't go on, as Americans well understand. Pessimism is rising about their children's futures, and an increasing majority see globalization as negative. Large majorities say Washington has been captured by the wealthy and entrenched corporate lobbies, crippled by partisan posturing and political bickering, and simply doesn't work for them.

The populism of Obama and Clinton doesn't speak just to the angry blue-collar workers of Youngstown and Toledo. It finds an audience across the country, one that will only grow as this economy gets worse, which it surely will.

Similarly, that populism reflects not simply the concerns of the Democratic Party base that votes in primaries; it speaks to the new majority that Democrats are forging to win elections. Labor's energized political program now reaches the one in four voters who come from union households. Single women constitute 25 percent of the potential electorate, and when they vote, they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Both groups are focused on economic concerns. People of color are hardest hit by both the recession and the housing collapse. Young people, the largest generation of all, oppose the war, care about the environment, but are struggling with lower wages, and college graduates are struggling with the burdens of debt. The broad middle class is under increasing pressure. Clinton and Obama aren't just posturing. Mugged by economic realities and sobered by the swing of national opinion, the eventual Democratic nominee will have won with a strong populist argument.

Edwards drove the populist agenda when he was in the race, but part of his frustration was that Obama and Clinton covered his every move. Both champion a far bolder agenda than they started with.

Think about the elements of a populist progressive economic strategy. We'd push for a bold public-investment agenda to get the economy going. Both Obama and Clinton have called for a concerted drive for energy independence, generating millions of new "green collar" jobs by investing in renewable energy and conservation. Both have called for an infrastructure-development bank, enabling infrastructure investment to break the shackles of the yearly budget constraints. Both have called for ending the war and using some of the $12 billion a month being spent on it to rebuild America. Both call for investing in education and making college and advanced training more affordable.

We'd want a new trade strategy that focused on workers here and abroad, not companies, with a strategy for the nation, not multinationals. Both Clinton and Obama have pledged no more trade accords without enforceable labor rights and environmental protections. Both have called for revoking tax breaks that reward companies for moving jobs abroad. Both voted against fast-track authority and have signed onto legislation challenging China's currency manipulation.

We progressives would demand that rising profits and productivity be widely shared, not simply pocketed by the top floor. And we'd push for a public social contract to replace the private sector's promises -- health care, paid vacations, pensions -- now being abandoned by corporations. Both Clinton and Obama have called for a national health-care plan, with increased taxes on the wealthy to pay for it. Both have called for legislation that empowers workers to organize and that cracks down on companies trampling worker rights. ("People sometimes ask me," Clinton says, "when you are president will labor have a seat at the table? Here's my answer -- labor built that table.")

The limits of Clinton's and Obama's progressive populism are apparent; Dennis Kucinich they aren't. Many wonder what portions of this agenda they would actually fight for if elected. Their top-end tax increases merely roll back the Bush cuts, falling short of the level of progressive taxes we'll need to rebuild the middle class. Their investment agenda is still timid in comparison to the need. Both enjoy substantial support from the financial industry and have not ventured close to the big Kahuna -- reregulating Wall Street, getting the destabilizing speculative global financial flows under control. Neither has suggested slapping a 30 percent tariff on China to force a negotiation about currency and trade policies.

But their populism isn't just rhetorical. And this agenda is tied to a politically compelling argument of what's gone wrong.

The fall election will be largely framed around two very different, very populist appeals. McCain will revive the Reagan argument -- government is the problem. He'll pledge to cut spending and taxes, and let you keep more of your money. The incompetence and corruption of government over the last eight years helps make his case. And McCain, the "sheriff" against earmarks, is perfectly situated to make this argument.

Against that, Clinton and Obama argue that the reason things are bad is that government has been handed over to the entrenched "corporate interests." Ironically, Hillary has been running to Obama's populist left through most of this campaign. Her appeal was strengthened by the economic record of her husband, but her populist credibility was also undermined by it, inasmuch as the Clinton presidency championed the corporate trade agenda, cut domestic spending dramatically as a percentage of gross domestic product while running up surpluses, pushed financial deregulation, and failed on health-care and labor-law reform.

Obama's genius has been to capture with his "Kumbaya" rhetoric not just the temper of the time but the reality of the economy. He calls for rising above partisan bickering and the arguments of the past to bring together Democrats, independents, and "Republicans with a clue" to make the reforms that we need. This isn't just a bet on "celestial angels," as Hillary suggested. He's arguing that the vast majority of Americans have a shared interest in taking back their government.

In the Cleveland debate, he put it this way: "It's not going to be easy to have a sensible energy policy in this country. ExxonMobil made $11 billion last quarter. They are not going to give up those profits easily" (emphasis added). To take them on, we've got to "mobilize and inspire the American people so that they're paying attention to what their government is doing. ... And there's nothing romantic or silly about that. If the American people are activated, that's how change is going to happen."

The election this fall will pose the starkest ideological choice since 1980, when Ronald Reagan's victory ushered in the conservative era. Neither Obama nor Clinton is a movement progressive in the way Reagan was a movement conservative. But both have been forced by the reality of the economy and the force of opinion to move dramatically -- and not just rhetorically -- to a more progressive analysis and agenda. And if John McCain, the "Reagan foot soldier," is defeated this fall, then, as conservatives found in 1980, the real struggle for change will begin.