The Populist Persuasion: The Incoming Senate Democrats May Differ on Cultural Issues, but They All like Unions and Alternative Energy, and Can't Stand Drug Companies and Free Trade

By Meyerson, Harold | The American Prospect, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Populist Persuasion: The Incoming Senate Democrats May Differ on Cultural Issues, but They All like Unions and Alternative Energy, and Can't Stand Drug Companies and Free Trade


Meyerson, Harold, The American Prospect


NEARLY FOUR DECADES AFTER IT HAPPENED, the assassination of Robert Kennedy still presents us with the greatest might-have-been of the past half-century of American politics. In the months before his murder, campaigning across the country in 1968's tumultuous presidential primaries, Kennedy did something that no Democrat after him has been able to do: He won primary majorities among both African-Americans and working-class whites, even though the white backlash against black militants and against the urban riots of that time was reaching fever pitch. With Kennedy's murder, however, the prospects for a Democratic Party able to command the allegiance of both white and black working-class voters abruptly collapsed. A number of whites who had voted for Kennedy in the spring's primaries voted for George Wallace in the fall's general election, and for Richard Nixon four years later, and for Ronald Reagan after that. Bill Clinton was able to win back a share of those working-class whites, but they generally constitute the Democrats' greatest challenge in each election cycle.

I was reminded of those voters who'd moved from Kennedy to Wallace while speaking, a couple of days after the midterm election, with Sherrod Brown, the populist Democratic congressman who unseated Ohio Republican Senator Mike DeWine by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin. Brown was calling my attention to Butler County, a mix of affluent Cincinnati exurbanites and, farther out, working-class whites. John Kerry had gotten clobbered in Butler two years ago, winning just 34 percent of the vote. Brown lost it this year as well, but pulled down a more respectable 43 percent, running up his best totals in the district's nonaffluent precincts.

Then Brown added a little historic context. In 1968, he said, "Butler was the best county for George Wallace north of the Mason-Dixon line. There were a lot of Kentucky transplants then, and it's still got a very conservative working class."

Whatever else Brown may be, he's nobody's conservative. He opposed the Iraq War from the outset and voted against subsequent supplemental appropriation bills; he voted against the Patriot Act and a ban on late-term abortions; he was a strong supporter of gay rights.

He didn't run from these positions in November's election, but neither did he run on them--except, of course, his opposition to the war. Chiefly, Brown ran as an economic populist. He campaigned for the state ballot measure raising the minimum wage, spoke up for changing federal labor law so workers could join unions without fear of being fired, and arranged bus trips to Canada for seniors to purchase more affordable drugs. He flayed DeWine and the Republicans for crafting Medicare's Part D to the benefit of drug companies, and the nation's energy policy to the benefit of oil companies. He argued for ambitious alternative energy programs, as a way both to arrest global warming and generate new jobs for Ohio's sagging economy. Above all, he ran as Congress' foremost critic of free trade, the Democrat who'd opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and led the fight against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). His campaign aired at least seven ads on Ohio television that highlighted his opposition to the trade deals that DeWine had supported, against a visual backdrop of the shuttered factories that dot the Ohio landscape.

"We did, 'He stands on our side' kind of issues," Brown said. In this, he was more the rule than the exception among victorious Democratic House and Senate candidates this November. Much of the conventional wisdom about the Democratic Class of 2006 has insisted that the incoming Democrats represent a rightward shift for the Democrats--a questionable assessment based solely on the new senators' positions on cultural issues. "The incoming class of senators," said one post-election Washington Post analysis, "includes two economic populists in .

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