Populism Rising: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton May Be Neophyte Class Warriors, but Their Populism Is More Than Just Rhetorical-And Must Be, If the Democrats Are to Win the Election and Govern Successfully

By Borosage, Robert | The American Prospect, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Populism Rising: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton May Be Neophyte Class Warriors, but Their Populism Is More Than Just Rhetorical-And Must Be, If the Democrats Are to Win the Election and Govern Successfully


Borosage, Robert, The American Prospect


"The oil companies, the predatory student loan companies, the insurance companies, and the drug companies have had seven years of a president who stands up for them. I intend to be a president who stands up for all of you."

The last ad of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, the populist battler from Minnesota? Not quite--it's a Hillary Clinton ad in Ohio. The candidate Fortune magazine hailed as Wall Street's favorite is even more populist on the stump.

Or consider this rift: "We need a president who will listen not just to Wall Street but to Main Street." The reason, the speaker warns, is that powerful special interests have taken over Washington. "It's a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and [like with] China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits, but none for our environment or our workers who've seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear--workers whose right to organize and unionize has been under assault for the last eight years."

John Edwards in full swing in Iowa? No, this is Barack Obama, the "hope monger," in Janesville, Wisconsin.

John Edwards is gone, but his populist rhetoric and agenda hold center stage in the Democratic presidential race. The Democratic race has come down to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, two relatively cautious moderates, tutored by Citigroup's Robert Rubin and his Wall Street-funded Hamilton Project, who have nonetheless both become unlikely populist scourges as the primary season rolled on.

Their conversion elicits a well-grounded cynicism. To the press, it's not populism reborn but situational ethics. The rhetoric ratcheted up as the primaries hit Wisconsin and Ohio, industrial states battered by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Obama had to cut into Clinton's hold on blue-collar families; Clinton had to consolidate and expand her margins in that base.

No question that Midwest voters are looking for a populist champion. Ohio suffers what Jesse Jackson termed the "trifecta of devastation." It has lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000. It never enjoyed the housing boom but is nonetheless the center of the collapse. In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development sold homes in Cleveland for less than the price of a latte at Starbucks. The state is disfigured by the long-term poverty of its inner cities and rural Appalachian counties. Even John McCain started talking about creating jobs when he got to Ohio.

But the situation generating this populism isn't limited to Ohio. America has lost one in five manufacturing jobs under George Bush. The median wage has lost ground, while prices in basics--gas, home heating, health-care premiums, college tuitions--have soared. One in 10 homes across the country are now "under water," worth less than their mortgages. Nationally, we have to borrow or sell off assets worth $2 billion a day to foreigners to cover our trade deficits.

This can't go on, as Americans well understand. Pessimism is rising about their children's futures, and an increasing majority see globalization as negative. Large majorities say Washington has been captured by the wealthy and entrenched corporate lobbies, crippled by partisan posturing and political bickering, and simply doesn't work for them.

The populism of Obama and Clinton doesn't speak just to the angry blue-collar workers of Youngstown and Toledo. It finds an audience across the country, one that will only grow as this economy gets worse, which it surely will.

Similarly, that populism reflects not simply the concerns of the Democratic Party base that votes in primaries; it speaks to the new majority that Democrats are forging to win elections. Labor's energized political program now reaches the one in four voters who come from union households. Single women constitute 25 percent of the potential electorate, and when they vote, they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. …

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