Thursday, October 21, 2010

Clintonian populism

Bill Schneider writes in Politico that the answer to the tea party is Clinton-style populism. President Bill Clinton was always won to get the voters out and draws large crowds at political rallies.
What’s missing is populism — the ability to connect with people. The tea party is rushing in to fill that void, even to the point of overthrowing the GOP establishment. It’s built on resentment of elites, like all populist movements. The tea party movement is so determinedly anti-elitist, it doesn’t even have a recognized national leader.

The tea party is right-wing populism. But populism is not the exclusive property of the right. The Democratic Party has a long tradition of left-wing populism aimed at country club conservatives. Franklin D. Roosevelt thundered, “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred!”

William Jennings Bryan — nominated by the Democratic Party for president three times — was both a left-wing populist and a right-wing populist.

Left wing on economics: Bryan electrified the party when he denounced banking interests: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” Right wing on culture: he ended his career defending the Bible at the Scopes trial. “All the ills from which America suffers,” Bryan proclaimed, “can be traced to the teaching of evolution.”[...]

What happened to the Democrats’ populist tradition? It’s still there, but it’s not associated with Obama. It’s associated with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Which is why a wave of Clinton nostalgia is washing over the country.

How can Democrats contend with tea party populism? By reviving Clintonism.

Bill Clinton’s calling card is empathy. That’s how he won the 1992 election. He felt the voters’ pain while George H.W. Bush was looking at his watch. Americans admire Obama. They empathize with Clinton, a man of undeniable popular faults and foibles.

Obama is an NPR Democrat; Clinton is sports talk. Clinton’s campaign speeches supporting Democratic congressional candidates this year are full of football analogies. “When something is really important to us — like football — we care about the facts,” he told voters in Arkansas. In Mississippi, he said, “Let’s play like we’re in a football game with the rest of the world, because we are.”

Clinton is barnstorming this month for Democratic Senate candidates in Kentucky and West Virginia — states where an appearance by Obama would be political poison. Kentucky and West Virginia have something else in common: They are states where, in 2008, Hillary Clinton defeated Obama in the Democratic primaries by better than 2-to-1.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton was the populist. She was the tough, resilient fighter for the people. She never gave up. “If you know one thing,” she said in Ohio, “when I say I will fight for you, I will. It’s what I’ve always done.”[...]

Author Bob Woodward speculated in a TV interview that the prospect of Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden trading places in 2012 was “on the table.” The White House immediately shot down the notion. And Biden said recently that the president has asked him to “run again.”

But this touched a chord with those Democrats who long for a dose of Clinton populism on the ticket.

Biden has some of it — Roman Catholic, modest origins, a little rough around the edges. That’s why he is in big demand by Democrats on the campaign trail, while Obama is not.

Biden himself drew the contrast. “They think of [Obama], they think of brilliant and masterful in presentation,” Biden told The New York Times. “People ... think I’m passionate about the things that have to do with the middle class.”

Democrats are longing for a leader who gets their populist juices flowing — someone who can say that the Republican Party represents “nothing but an organized appetite.”

Which is what William Jennings Bryan once said.

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