Who’s the real populist in this presidential campaign?

June 16, 2015
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Clinton delivers her "official launch speech" at a campaign kick off rally on Roosevelt Island in New York City

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers her campaign kick-off speech at Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York City, June 13, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

In the early stages of any presidential campaign, the race for money is accompanied by an “ideas primary” as candidates begin to frame the purpose and platform of their campaigns. What’s striking about the salad days of the 2016 race is that populism is leading the ideas primary of both parties. Republican and Democratic candidates are invoking populist tropes to make their case.

One Democrat, for example, launched his campaign with this populist broadside:

The CEO of Goldman Sachs let his employees know that he’d be just fine with either [Jeb] Bush or [Hillary] Clinton. Well, I’ve got news for the bullies of Wall Street. The presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth by you between two royal families.

Growing inequality, the candidate said, is shattering the American dream. Not global forces, but “powerful, wealthy special interests here at home” have built “an economy that is leaving a majority of our people behind.”

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign kickoff rally in Burlington

Senator Bernie Sanders launches his presidential campaign in Burlington, Vermont, May 26, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

This wasn’t Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an acknowledged radical drawing big crowds with his populist oratory. It was former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, long known for his passion about efficient management techniques.

Not to be outdone, another Democratic contender railed against “25 hedge-fund managers making more than all American kindergarten teachers combined. And often paying a lower tax rate. … Democracy can’t be just for billionaires and corporations. Prosperity and democracy are part of your basic bargain, too.”

That also was not Sanders. It was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, regularly cited as Wall Street’s favorite Democrat. She sounded the populist cry in her Roosevelt Island speech on Saturday.

On the Republican side, candidates also play populist refrains. Outraged that the “rich and powerful” are getting “fat and happy,” one embraced “the spirit and the mojo” of Occupy Wall Street, saying that “income inequality is the new racism in this country. It’s the next thing we need to topple with a civil rights movement.”

This wasn’t libertarian Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.). It was Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose wife worked at Goldman Sachs until she recently took a leave to work in his campaign.

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Pupulist leader William Jennings Bryan on stage during 1908 Democratic National Convention. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Today’s Populism 3.0 is tamer than the original Gilded Age version. In the late 1800s, small farmers and businessmen, laborers and farmworkers forged a massive citizens’ movement to challenge the plutocrats who controlled the banks and the railroad monopolies, and were raking in money while driving many Americans into bankruptcy.

The populists railed against the era’s corrupt politics. They called for popular elections, citizen initiatives and referendums. They sought to free farmers from the grip of economic predators and championed progressive taxes and cleaning up government. In doing so, they transformed the agenda of both major parties. In the South, however, populist fervor fused with nativist, anti-immigrant and racial politics that crushed any hope for an integrated movement.

Politicians recognize this is another populist moment. The 2008 financial collapse shattered the establishment’s authority. The bipartisan bailout of the big banks enraged homeowners and small businesses, which got no similar help. The recovery benefited the 1 percent but has yet to reach most Americans, especially those earning minimum wage. The Tea Party movement on the right and Occupy Wall Street on the left gave voice to the growing outrage.

Strategists in both parties say the outcome of the 2016 race will likely be determined by who has the most compelling message on how to make the economy work for working people. The political strategies of Democrats and Republicans reinforce the populist trend: In an ever more ideologically divided electorate, both parties are focused on turning out their base.

Yet the early favorite for the 2016 nomination in each party — former Florida Governor Bush for the Republicans and Clinton for the Democrats — is an establishment insider. The running space against Bush is on the right, with the Tea Party or evangelical voters. With Clinton, it is the populist left. Both candidates are seeking to narrow that distance.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley announces his intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in Baltimore, Maryland

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley opens his Democratic presidential nomination campaign with a speech in Baltimore, Maryland, May 30, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Populist rhetoric takes on different forms among Democrats and Republicans. Republicans have long relied on cultural populism; Democrats rallied to the economic kind.

On the Democratic side, Sanders is drawing the largest early crowds by rousing working- and middle-class Americans against the “billionaire class.” O’Malley is competing on the same turf.

Former Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, who is also considering a run for the Democratic nomination, has a strong populist record. He opposed corporate trade deals, warned early about rising inequality and challenged the national-security elite’s efforts to police the world. And now Clinton has made it clear she, too, is prepared to declaim against “billionaires and multinationals” that have rigged the rules.

These candidates seek to appeal to the Democratic Party’s activist base, which is already mobilized. Unions, environmentalists and Moveon.org activists all united to organize a stinging defeat to President Barack Obama and his big-business allies in the battle over fast-track authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Sanders, O’Malley and Webb are all opposed to the pact.

Clinton stayed out of the fray until the votes were cast, but then urged the president to join with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and get “everything possible to protect American workers.”

Meanwhile, the most powerful Democratic political operation in Iowa, for a time, was “Run Warren Run,” a group trying to persuade Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leading populist voice, to enter the race.

Populist anger on the left over soaring CEO pay has many voters demanding that the wealthy no longer pay a lower income-tax rate than those who work for them. This anger could drive an increasingly popular jobs agenda that uses public investment to rebuild crumbling infrastructure and produce clean energy. Both O’Malley and Sanders talk about breaking up the big banks. Sanders is championing debt-free college, paid for by a financial-transactions tax, and Social Security expansion to help a generation of retiring boomers with inadequate savings and no pensions.

Democrat Webb holds a victory rally after opponent concedes in Senate race in Arlington

Democrat James Webb holds an election victory rally in Arlington, Virginia, November 9, 2006, REUTERS/Larry Downing

Clinton initially concentrated on winning the money primary, in a race expected to cost her campaign roughly a billion dollars. But she is also embracing a more populist voice. She launched her campaign by saying she wanted to be a “champion” of “everyday people.” She chose the Four Freedoms Memorial on Roosevelt Island, a stirring monument to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for her first major rally. She laid out a broad reform agenda that included raising the floor under workers with an increase in the minimum wage, paid family leave, affordable child care and overtime pay. She promised reform of money in politics and an expansion of the right to vote.

Stung by reports that her campaign is a populist transformation, Clinton supporters have released a report detailing the ways that she’s always been a champion of working people.

Yet Clinton has said little about how to deal with the big banks, other than to defend Obama’s reforms from the GOP’s efforts to roll them back. Whether or not she will support taxing the rich to support vital public investments remains to be seen.

Populist rhetoric among Democratic candidates isn’t new. Recent Democratic presidents, however, campaigned in a more populist voice than in which they governed. President Bill Clinton, during his first presidential campaign, called for raising taxes on the rich to pay for a large public investment agenda. Obama’s first campaign featured an extended debate with Joe the Plumber about “spreading the money around.” But once in office, such populist appeals were put aside.

Now, 2016 thrums with even bolder populist positioning. This time, an aroused populist movement might be able to pressure the politicians to keep true to their promises.

6 comments

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choice between H-diarrhea and JEB-syfilis

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

Neither party is going to effect change, and no one candidate is going to shake up anything. Until a critical mass in Washington wants change its all empty promises.

Posted by Dehumanist | Report as abusive

Between Presidential candidates repeatedly breaking their promises and a Congress that has never been more out-of-touch with voters and the real world, we might as well vote for candidates based on their campaign logos. Oh wait.. None of these make any sense to Americans either.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/20  /2016-logo-poll_n_7102420.html

Posted by Hulls | Report as abusive

What we need is another Bush. Another 3 trillion war, and 100,000 dead and wounded American soldiers…. so that ISIS can have a new home.

Hey republicans: Told you so.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

I am disappointed that you did not highlight the difference between Sanders and the others. His is not a campaign conversion, which cannot be said about O’Malley and Clinton. The mainstream media has marginalized Sanders since his announcement, I am surprised that you joined the chorus.

Posted by MikeBayer | Report as abusive

Most Americans agree with Bernie Sanders, whether they like the ‘socialist’ label or not.

http://www.politicususa.com/2015/06/03/p olls-americans-socialists-bernie-sanders .html

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive