Bush goes populist, hitting CEOs

His message shows how nation's mood has shifted since 2000 election.

When Al Gore spoke of "the people versus the powerful" during the 2000 campaign, critics ridiculed the slogan as out of touch, a strident populism that didn't resonate among content voters who were still riding out the boom years of the 1990s.

But as Washington scrambles to react to the latest wave of corporate scandals, amid rising unemployment and shrinking retirement plans, both parties are now beginning to adopt elements of a populist crusade as their own.

Republicans and Democrats alike are suddenly sounding a bit like William Jennings Bryan, as they rush to act like defenders of the common man. Democrats, sensing an issue where Republicans and President Bush may be vulnerable, are making accounting reform their top priority in the Senate this week, while the House Democratic campaign committee is holding "investors' bill of rights" events in targeted districts around the nation.

Not to be outdone, Republicans have berated WorldCom executives at recent House committee hearings, and are calling for bipartisan reforms. In his speech on Wall Street Tuesday, Mr. Bush even invoked Teddy Roosevelt's antitrust stance, calling for the creation of a "corporate fraud task force," as well as tougher criminal penalties for dishonest executives.

The new tone reflects how persistent populism is as a strain of US politics – and how different the political world of 2002 is from that of 2000. While Bush emphasized his business experience during the 2000 campaign, promising to run the White House like a major corporation, those same assets could prove a liability in the current climate – particularly given the recent questions about his role in a stock sale that was investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

And although the war on terror could prove a significant factor for voters this November, economic concerns seem increasingly likely to play a major role as well. "Ordinary people now have a set of economic conditions they're not pleased with, and an identifiable set of villains," says William Galston, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and a former Gore adviser. "This is a classic formula for a successful populist message."

Most analysts agree that these conditions play to Democrats' strengths. While both parties have employed populist rhetoric at different times over the years, Democratic populism has long focused on the misdeeds of economic elites, whereas Republican populists such as Ronald Reagan tend to target government or intellectual elites, explains Michael Kazin, author of "The Populist Persuasion."

Democrats argue that they're the only party truly willing to take on corporate corruption. They blame the recent scandals on the "permissive environment" created by congressional Republicans' dismantling of regulations in recent years, and highlight the Bush administration's pro-business stances on a range of issues from taxes to environmental regulations.

"These events feed a historic Republican vulnerability," says Mr. Galston. "The American people are predisposed to believe that Republicans are too close to and too friendly to corporate interests."

On the other hand, some say that a Republican like Bush, precisely because of his pro-business posture, is in the best position to successfully tackle corporate reforms – an effort that could be similar to staunch anti-Communist Nixon visiting China. In his speech yesterday, the president cast himself as a latter-day Teddy Roosevelt, responding to the current crisis with a tough agenda of corporate reform.

Indeed, a recent Gallup poll found that 65 percent of Americans were confident that the president will take effective action to make sure corporations act responsibly.

Still, others are skeptical that Bush will be able to put aside conservative principles enough to achieve significant reform. "The reluctance to regulate is pretty ingrained in this administration," says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University.

In fact, the Republican who dons the populist mantle most convincingly could be Arizona Sen. John McCain, Bush's past primary rival. Senator McCain this week called for the resignation of the president's SEC chief, Harvey Pitt, and plans to give his own speech on corporate reform tomorrow.

Most damaging to the president, analysts suggest, could be questions about his own business practices. Not only has Bush's past sale of Harken Energy stock come under scrutiny, but critics are also probing questionable accounting practices at the company when Bush was on the board, as well as at Vice President Cheney's former company, Halliburton, which is currently the subject of a federal investigation.

At the very least, the questions seem likely to "tarnish Bush's image a little," says Professor Edwards. And while the president's approval ratings are high enough to provide a certain amount of cushion, he adds, the margins in Congress are so close that the GOP can't afford to lose a single percentage point.

Of course, Democrats still run the risk of overplaying their hand. Not only are they attacking a very popular president, but their populist rhetoric may also revive an old antibusiness stereotype that had limited the party's appeal and hurt its fundraising ability in the years before the Clinton presidency.

Mr. Kazin notes that while populism can provide a compelling campaign theme, it's almost never enough to clinch victory. "People don't vote for candidates who are just angry," he says. "They want someone who's reassuring, a unifier. That's one of the reasons populists from Bryan to George Wallace have never been successful."

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