Democrats, who seem unable to creatively engage or oppose President Bush—or even to start an interesting fight among themselves—have begun to turn their attention to the presidential campaign of 2004. As always, there are candidates aplenty roaming around Iowa and New Hampshire, peddling orotundities, consuming corn dogs and clam chowder, and rehearsing the dread phrase “prescription drug benefits.” As always, the aspirants are privately working to charm moneybags in New York, Hollywood, and the various Silicon ghettos whence Democratic cash springs. But the real campaign will not begin until Bob Shrum chooses his candidate.
Who is Shrum? A brilliant speechwriter first. (He wrote Ted Kennedy’s memorable “the dream will never die” speech in 1980 and many of the better words uttered by Democrats since.) A political consultant second and third. Indeed, Shrum is probably the alpha-Dem strategist these days. And he will be in a unique position in 2004, with connections to no fewer than four prominent Democratic hopefuls. He was Al Gore’s consultant in 2000. He has a long-standing relationship with Richard Gephardt, whose ads he concocted in the 1988 presidential primaries. He helped win both John Kerry’s difficult Senate campaign in 1996 against the popular governor William Weld and John Edwards’ difficult Senate campaign against Lauch Faircloth in 1998. He could land with any of the above in 2004. No political consultant has ever had so many options.
And so, the first contest of 2004 will be the Shrum primary. The winner, however, will be in a real pickle: If history is any guide, Shrum’s choice will lose either a) the nomination or b) the general election. This is not to say Shrum is incompetent. He wins difficult races on the state level—Kerry’s and Edwards’, for example. But his record on the presidential level is disastrous, in part because he has been slow to shed the antique welfare-state liberalism of the (Ted) Kennedy era, but mostly because he has gradually replaced Kennedy elegance with an aggressive, pessimistic, and unsubtle strain of economic populism.
Populism is one of the more romantic and less admirable American political traditions. It purports to represent the interests of the little guy—the people, not the powerful, to use the Shrum-Gore bumper sticker—but more often than not it has manifested itself as a witlessly reactionary bundle of prejudices: nativist, protectionist, isolationist, and paranoid. The central assumption is that the little guy is so aggrieved that he can only be roused to citizenship by an appeal to his basest suspicions. Exploitation and venality are posited as the central fact of American life: The country is being taken to the cleaners by wicked plutocrats.
This rather sour ideology did have one fleeting moment of high-mindedness a hundred years ago. The Populist Party promoted several programs—the progressive income tax, a central banking system with control over the money supply, antitrust regulation—to provide needed controls over an emerging national economy. These were embraced by Theodore Roosevelt’s Republicans and implemented by Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats. But the pure strain of populism has always been a bit too harsh, and too easily hijacked by demagogues, to be very successful politically.
In recent years, there have been three essential types of populism. The most successful is aesthetic: the candidate as common man. Log cabin mythology gave way in the 20th century to white trash mythology. One doesn’t necessarily need to be a redneck, one can nibble at being one. In 1988, George H.W. Bush’s campaign romance with pork rinds and Loretta Lynn easily trumped Michael Dukakis’ campaign romance with ethnicity. An argument can be made that NASCAR rules in presidential elections, and victory goes to the most convincing cracker. Al Gore—perhaps the apotheosis of political inauthenticity—made a fool of himself trying to come off as a Tennessee farm boy; George W. Bush was a far more convincing rube.
The second most successful strain of populism is social. George Wallace comes to mind. The little guy turns out to be a bristling bundle of leave-me-alone resentments (and populists do tend to be guys, which makes them an unholy attraction to the guy-deprived Democrats). A good part of Bill Clinton’s appeal was a nontoxic variety of social populism: tough on crime, tough on indolence, but generous with those who were willing to “work hard and play by the rules.” Clinton was the first Democrat in many years to emphasize the “play by the rules” part of the equation. It should be noted that Shrum had no part in Clinton’s brilliant 1992 campaign, although he did contribute significant patches of rhetoric to presidential speeches during the Clinton administration.
The least successful form of populism usually is economic (the Great Depression was a possible exception to this rule; Franklin Roosevelt did rant against economic royalists, but he was too sweet-tempered to rant for long). Unfortunately—and in far more prosperous times than FDR’s—the economic rant has become Bob Shrum’s hobbyhorse. To be sure, there’s a deep-seated belief among many Americans that fat cats control Washington (on recent evidence, it could be argued that the fattest cats are those most mythic of populists: farmers). But this is a sweeping, intellectually lazy sentiment—a rationale for nonparticipation (“My vote doesn’t make a difference”)—that is consistently overvalued by Democratic consultants. In truth, optimism, opportunity, and don’t-fence-me-in freedom are much closer to the American bone. William McKinley (who is, not coincidentally, Karl Rove’s hero) beats William Jennings Bryan every time.
If there is a victorious Democratic model, it is a politician who combines patriotic optimism with the promise to support individual initiative and demand corporate responsibility, as Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton did. Formulations that use the word “against,” as in “the people against the powerful,” just aren’t very successful in America.
Or they’re not successful for very long. Richard Gephardt had a moment of daylight in Iowa in 1988, when Shrum produced a clever ad pounding on Korean imports: We let Hyundais into America scot-free while the Koreans strap nine “different taxes and tariffs” on American cars. This worked because it was Iowa and also because it was Gephardt, who came from a working-class background and had a real affinity for blue-collar protectionism. Shrum’s subsequent adventures in populism haven’t worked as well. In 1992, he put Bob Kerrey in a hockey goal “protecting” American products against unfair foreign competition. And then there was Gore’s sudden populist efflorescence in the fall of 2000. Both flopped. Kerrey later admitted he didn’t believe a word he was saying. Gore’s populism reeked of resentment and neurosis—was it “the powerful” or Bill Clinton he really disdained? The anger was a bit too sweaty and confused for most Americans, who tend not to elect angry presidents.
So, 2004: Who is Shrum’s horse of choice? John Kerry presents problems. With his aristocratic mien and Massachusetts provenance, he couldn’t pass for populist if he were caught driving a pickup truck with Paula Jones riding shotgun and Astroturf in the back. No, Kerry would be a cinch for Shrum’s other eternal riff: the Next Kennedy. (Shrum attempted a charisma transplant for Al Checchi, the gazillionaire who ran for governor of California in 1998: There were ads featuring Checchi walking reflectively—as Bobby Kennedy once did—on the beach.)
Al Gore is Al Gore. Richard Gephardt can deliver the populist message with conviction, but there is probably too much mayonnaise on his sandwich. Which leaves John Edwards, potentially the best of all possible Shrumian worlds: a Kennedy-esque populist of working-class heritage from the South. I don’t know enough about Edwards yet to be convinced that he is, as my New Yorker colleague Nicholas Lemann recently posited, the real deal. He may well be; he certainly has great word-of-mouth.
The notion of trial lawyer as populist icon does have a tinny resonance. Clarence Darrow certainly was one. John Edwards and cases like Erin Brockovich’s do, at times, represent the people against the most virulent corporate scoundrels. But where’s the “social justice” in a multimillion-dollar settlement that raises the price of goods and services—particularly of health insurance—for all the rest of us? Indeed, there is another, more colloquial expression used to describe Edwards’ line of work: ambulance-chaser. Absent a clever, counterintuitive Edwardian ploy—say, he proposes the elimination of punitive damages in tort cases—the heroic potential here seems rather limited.
The notion of economics as a zero-sum game—the people gain when the powerful lose; the people gain when they don’t have to compete against immigrants for work—is the mean-spirited fallacy at the heart of modern populism. This message is not only a proven loser but also the intellectual opposite of the expansive, inclusive, “rising tide” public activism that moved a generation of Americans, including Bob Shrum, to get involved in politics in the first place. The next John or Robert Kennedy may be a forlorn liberal hope and—as presented by Shrum—a threadbare cliché, but the Kennedys were, at the very least, idealists who raised the nation’s spirit with inspirational words and deeds. And they never defended “the little people” for a third of the take.