Democrats' Milquetoast Populism

IN the beginning of this year's primary season, when Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was campaigning in New Hampshire and his hopes were still high, Harkin was fond of quoting Lee Atwater, the late Republican strategist. "The one candidate the Bush people fear the most," Mr. Harkin recalled Atwater saying, "is a strong Democrat with an economic populist message."

Harkin wasn't the only one who expected this election year to bring class warfare to the forefront of American politics. Twelve years of Republican redistribution of wealth, it was argued by Republican analyst Kevin Phillips, would touch off a new realignment: rich against poor.

And why not? Here's a patrician Yalie in the White House whose lack of the common touch is often painfully obvious. He ought to make a fitting target for a hell-raising, man-of-the-people opponent. Add to that an economic downturn that has become a long and deep recession, and it's hard to imagine better conditions for a resurgence of economic populism.

So where is it? What has become of the populist revolt?

Harkin's unapologetic tax-the-rich campaign has floundered, and Democratics are instead flirting with the big-business-oriented, castor-oil message of former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. The premise of the Tsongas campaign is almost the mirror opposite of Harkin's. Two faces of populism

An argument can be made that Harkin's defeats have not been a judgment against populism; he is perceived as an anachronistic New Deal liberal, and he is not connected to a masses-based grass-roots movement, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson was in 1988. Furthermore, voter discontent does continue to register in support for the campaigns of former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who won the Colorado primary, and, on the other side, for conservative columnist Pat Buchanan.

Now, with the battleground shifted to the South, we will witness what Southern politics often brings into sharp focus: the two faces of populism.

On the one hand, demagogues such as George Wallace, David Duke, and now Mr. Buchanan are often described as populists because they appeal to "us against them" sentiment. On the other hand, a competing current of populism attempts to direct people's anger not at other races or creeds but at the wealthy and powerful and at the system that seems to be stacked in their favor. This is economic populism, used masterfully by Louisana Gov. Huey Long 50 years ago, as he campaigned to "share the wealth." In the spirit of Huey Long

Mr. Long's argument was undermined by his own unscrupulousness and has been corrupted by Louisiana politics ever since. But next door in Texas an attempt to refine the populist argument continues, led most notably by Jim Hightower, who was Texas Agriculture Commissioner through most of the 1980s. Mr. Hightower, unseated by a Republican in 1990, now heads the Financial Democracy Campaign in Austin.

Though the majority of Texans may not be in sync with Hightower's anti-corporate, too-much-power-in-too-few-hands politics, a significant number of voters in the Texas Democratic primary are. During the 1980s, as Texas became a two-party state, the Democratic Party moved to the left. Politicians such as Hightower, Gov. Ann Richards, Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, and former Attorney General Jim Mattox have succeeded using varying styles of populism.

In this landscape, the politician most likely to make a bid for the populist mantle is Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Texas is not fertile ground for Mr. Tsongas, whose "pro-business liberalism" gives off a discordant buzz.

Mr. Clinton has already been staking out his ground as the candidate for ordinary, middle-class folk. He has portrayed Tsongas as a candidate of "dumb ideas" that betray a "cold-hearted" alignment with Wall Street over Main Street. This may well be the influence of Clinton's campaign strategist James Carville emerging. Mr. Carville is the Louisiana consultant whose assistance to Sen. Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania last fall showed his understanding of gut-level economic appeals. Clinton strong in Texas

Clinton doesn't yet have Texas sewn up, but he appears to be well on his way. Led by Land Commissioner Mauro, the Clinton forces have organized early and have drawn support from the liberals and populists who are active in the Democratic Party and from both conservative and liberal business people who put up the money. Clinton has lined up endorsements from Mexican-Americans and blacks. Governor Richards has not yet declared support for any of the contenders.

With 196 delegates at stake in Texas, Clinton stands a good chance of emerging with Super Tuesday's biggest prize. A campaign in which he paints Tsongas as the choice of big business ought to work well for him there.

But does that mean that Clinton has anything to do with true populism - as the term is understood in Texas? Jim Hightower, for one, is skeptical. "I find no real enthusiasm anywhere in the country" for the Democratic candidates, he says. In his view, there is "no real debate" going on among Democrats about the direction of the country and about economic issues of fundamental importance.

During the New Hampshire primary, Hightower aligned himself with Ralph Nader, and he spoke at a forum that called for candidates to address the government bailouts of the nation's banking and savings and loans crises and other financial legacies of the 1980s. Harkin and Mr. Brown were the only major Democrats to participate. In Dukakis's footsteps?

Skepticism about Clinton's true bearings may be a continuing source of worry among some Democrats. The Arkansas governor is, in fact, quite close to Tsongas in economic proposals, as Clinton himself has admitted. Asked at a campaign stop in Massachusetts early in the season what he thought of the Tsongas campaign, Clinton told reporters, "I identify more with him than with my other contestants in this race because we both take economics very seriously. He and I have laid out by far the most detailed econ omic programs." Both candidates favor a closer partnership between big government and big business, looking to Japan as a model.

For that matter, Clinton's economic tendencies recall another Massachusetts politician: Michael Dukakis. Though many remember Clinton's speech at the 1988 Democratic National convention primarily for its unending drone, it's worth remembering the content, as well. It was a nomination speech for Mr. Dukakis, in which Clinton extolled the technocratic, managerial liberalism Dukakis stood for. Odds against populism

What gets very little discussion in Tsongas's and Clinton's "detailed economic programs" is how to increase the influence of organized labor, community organizations, or at least of working people in general. Neither seems to be in touch with what ought to be the true spirit of economic populism - a push to democratize control over economic institutions, not just to manage them differently.

What you begin to understand as you watch another primary season unfold is that it is probably impossible in this day and age for a truly populist politician - someone who advocates economic restructuring based on fairness, redistribution of wealth, and democratic participation - to succeed in a national campaign.

Holding the first primary in New Hampshire, a predominantly Republican, small-business state, sets a difficult initial challenge for a populist message. And by the time the campaigns move into huge Southern media markets, candidates are reduced to speaking in 30-second spasms of sloganeering. They enter the desperate search for funds and they lose their ability to run against the Big Money. And from the very beginning a candidate who wants to bring true democracy to the economic system is speaking in a l ost political language.

This is to say that it is nearly impossible for a politician as a lone politician to take that route. With true numbers backing him or her up, with a mass-based political movement standing behind the politician, it might well be another story.

But at this point it doesn't appear that 1992 will turn out to be the year of economic populism and the revenge of the have-nots. Instead of lower- and middle-class voters uniting against a common class enemy, the primary season is pitting one region against another. The East chooses Tsongas. The Midwest goes for Harkin. The South backs Clinton. The West is receptive to Brown.

There is still a chance that the Democratic nominee will make hay with populist rhetoric against Bush in the fall. But what if voters perceive that the would-be populist is not authentic? What if they conclude that both candidates are already bought and paid for?

The great populist revolt will probably stay home and stew - at least until enough people realize that you can't really expect much from politicians, or politics, if you don't turn off the TV and get up off the couch.

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