Populism is back, but will it work?

The pitfalls of appealing to rage and fear are biggest for Obama. For McCain, his newfound populism presents an absurdity, but also an opportunity.
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The pitfalls of appealing to rage and fear are biggest for Obama. For McCain, his newfound populism presents an absurdity, but also an opportunity.

One of the surprises of the early election season was the failure of populist messages to catch fire. John Edwards, Mike Huckabee, Rep. Ron Paul, and Sen. Hillary Clinton saw situational success, but not enough to ignite the political prairie. Suddenly, with Wall Street on the brink, populism is back with the unlikeliest of proponents: Sen. John McCain.

The Republican presidential candidate is railing against CEOs, the elite, and corporate greed. His sudden conversion from a proponent of unfettered capitalism to champion of the little guy has not gone unnoticed. Conservative pundit George Will, on ABC's This Week Sept. 21, for example, was not pleased:

McCain has found his inner voice, it is his inner William Jennings Bryan. He's a populist now. The problem is if you're running as above all else a leader, populism is always pandering and pandering is always the reverse of leadership.

For Will, McCain's makeover is not only an example of campaign opportunism but, in effect, a disqualifying maneuver for a man who has based his entire campaign on experience, judgement, and the willingness to buck tides, not lead pitch-fork parades. With McCain attacking multimillion-dollar payouts to failed executives, one might call his latest line of outrage his "Cross of Golden Parachutes" gambit.

This comes on the heels of McCain's flirtation with populism in his pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate: a self-styled reformer who is a kind of hockey-mom everywoman and who can deflect attention from McCain's own non-populist lifestyle of decades as a Washington insider and owner of 13 cars and more houses than he knows.

Plus, her religious background lends her classic populist cred of the Mike Huckabee (and Bryan) style. One news analyst, Tom Teepen of Cox News Service, likened McCain's new approach to a kind of religious conversion experience: "[H]e is suddenly talking the language of economic populism — for McCain, [that's] as unexpected as speaking in tongues ..." An appropriate simile, as for 20 years Palin was a member of a church congregation where tongues was fluently spoken. She is perhaps versed in both the language of God and the language of economics for the little guy. There are few programs more populist than sending Alaskans bonus checks to share in oil revenue.

McCain also underscored his willingness to throw out experience as a qualification with the Palin V.P. pick, and his appearance on Sunday, Sept. 21, on CBS's 60 Minutes emphasized that. He insisted that Palin, the bulk of whose experience was gained as mayor of a town the size of Yelm, Wash., was fully prepared to be president, though apparently not fully prepared to give press interviews or agree to a debate format without training wheels.

The point is that Palin's popularity among the party faithful is not based on her experience but on her lack of experience. She is an uncorrupted person of faith who is one of the people. In a sense, it is Palin who is the new William Jennings Bryan, who was nicknamed "The Great Commoner." This commoner can also field dress a moose, a factoid that adds to her folksy outsiderness.

Why has populism made a comeback? Fear and anger. While people have felt anxiety over the war and economy, the last week moved the meter into the panic zone over the safety of their retirement funds, credit, bank accounts, insurance policies, and money market funds. In short, the great American nest egg is about to crack. How bad is it? So bad that there seems to be bipartisan agreement to turn the secretary of the Treasury into an economic Hugo Chavez by nationalizing the investment banks, writing him a check for a trillion dollars, and giving him dictatorial powers.

That has resurrected populism in this cycle. Washington Post blogger Chris Cilliza sees it in both McCain and Sen. Barrack Obama camps:

McCain's decision to embrace populism on the stump is not only a nod to the successes (limited, of course) of Edwards and Clinton during the primary season but also a recognition of the current political environment.

Find any national poll conducted over the last six months and two trends are immediately apparent: large majorities of voters believe Washington doesn't work for them and those same large majorities believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Given that political reality, it's a no-brainer that both Obama and McCain are — each in their own way — running against Washington. And, given the uncertainty and anger that crops ups in these same polls, it also makes sound political sense for both candidates to portray themselves as the only person willing and able to go to Washington and be a voice for the voiceless in the White House.

David Corn at Mother Jones finds McCain's populism phony, but it just might work:

McCain is no William Jennings Bryan. But for a Republican, he's coming on like a populist gangbuster. Given his track record as a deregulator, this is faux populism. But that doesn't mean it can't work politically. ...

Right now, McCain is keeping up — if not ahead of — Obama in displaying fury concerning the ongoing economic meltdown. And he's also playing even when it comes to proposing policy responses to the crisis at hand. But it sure takes chutzpah — and selective amnesia — for McCain to position himself as the enraged scourge of Wall Street greed-meisters and Washington influence-peddlers. After his speech on Friday morning [Sept. 19], a New York Daily News reporter blogged, "Our jaw dropped just now listening to McCain blame lobbyists and Obama advisers. Just consider that McCain advisers (chief among them Phil Gramm) wrote the laws that deregulated these markets and lobbied hard to keep scrutiny to a minimum."

But McCain's campaign has already signaled it doesn't give a damn about its reviews in the press. Reality doesn't matter; impressions do. And McCain is trying to create the impression he is indeed a mad-as-hell populist maverick and reformer. Obama cannot stop the McCain camp from attempting this extreme makeover. He can only control his own reaction to the crisis. But it would pose trouble for the Democrats if Obama's response leaves any opening for McCain the Populist to stomp through.

Obama has consistently argued for paying attention to Americans' "kitchen table" concerns and makes the case that he, more than McCain, is the real Washington outsider, but he is no populist in image or inclination. He is also somewhat checked by race. Being black is an advantage to the extent that a largely white electorate sees him as transcending race, but an angry black man will not be seen as a populist but rather a radical who confirms racial prejudice.

So Obama must show enough anger that Americans know that he cares but not so much he scares the hell out of them. Obama, rather than going all populist-rage, is therefore emphasizing his capacity for bringing people together.

Again, David Corn discusses Obama's advertising response to the economic crisis:

At the end of the [campaign] ad, Obama says, "Bitter partisan fights and outworn ideas of the left and the right won't solve the problems we face today. But a new spirit of unity and shared responsibility will."

Obama's approach is cerebral — a term not often well received within political circles. In the ad, he does not directly connect to and tap into the frustration or anxiety of voters. His message: let's rise above our politics and solve this thing together. There's not much talk of punishment or consequences for those who messed up. And there's no slap at McCain, George W. Bush, or the Republicans for leading the system that failed.

So Obama's best response is to stick to his beliefs and avoid pounding the podium (he can leave that to Joe Biden in the depressed swing states). Show just enough anger and fire to let people know he'll fight for them, but focus less on rage and emphasize Bill Clinton-style empathy and problem-solving centrism: I feel your pain — and I'm going to do something about it.

As for McCain, despite the absurdity of his newfound voice, especially when contrasted with his record, he's playing the strongest hand he has to close out the campaign. After all, populism is an angry-white-guy thing.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.