Millionaire Populists

Last minute stumping for the New Hampshire Democratic primary: John Edwards (left) at The Palace Theatre in Manchester; and John Kerry (right) at the high school in Salem. Both on 1-26-04, the day before the primary.
When John Kerry spoke to a rally after winning the New Hampshire primary, he employed the language of populism. Kerry is well educated, well-to-do, and wedded to an heiress. But in his speech he positioned himself as a champion of the common man. America, he said, doesn't belong to "the privileged." His political career, he insisted, has been dedicated to battling "against powerful interests." And he listed them: "influence peddlers, polluters, HMOs, the drug companies, big oil, and the special interests who now call the White House home." Kerry forgot to mention another frequent target of his attacks, insurance companies.

John Kerry, populist? It certainly has an inauthentic ring. In Boston, Kerry has a home on fancy Beacon Hill. In Washington, he lives on an estate near Rock Creek Park and belongs to the Democratic establishment (to the extent there is one). As a senator for 19 years, he's advocated mainstream liberalism, not the left-wing populism of fringe figures like Ralph Nader and Jim Hightower. So it's easy to conclude Kerry's populism doesn't reflect the essence of the man. It's a pose.

In the presidential race, there's a more important question about his populist pitch: Will it work? It does among educated, upper-middle-class, liberal Democrats, of whom there are many in New Hampshire, and with hard-core Democratic partisans. They're thrilled by it. And it appeals to Democratic political consultants. All these folks know the liberal populism of Kerry and the even more fervent populism of John Edwards is wildly exaggerated. But it's their idea of how to appeal to the horde of voters ranging from lower middle class to poor. "It's an attempt to be empathetic," says Republican strategist Jeffrey Bell. It's also condescending and patronizing. And its record is mixed at best. Populist appeals failed to win the Democratic nomination for Dick Gephardt in 1988 and Bob Kerrey in 1992. Whether Al Gore's embrace of populism ("the people versus the powerful") helped him win the popular vote in 2000 is anybody's guess. I doubt it helped much.

In New Hampshire, you didn't have to look very hard to see the limits of populism, notably in the case of Edwards. In a TV commercial, he summarized his populist message:

It seems today we have two Americas. With two health care systems, one for the privileged, the other rationed by insurance companies. With two public school systems, one for the haves, one for everybody else. Two governments, one for powerful interests and lobbyists, the other for the rest of us. Two tax systems, where the wealthy corporations pay less, working families pay more.

In his stump speeches, which Edwards repeats word for word at each event, he adds that "two different economies" are dividing America between those families "who never have to worry about a thing" and those who "struggle from paycheck to paycheck." Also in his stump speeches he often introduces his daughter who's "in college." He leaves out that her college is Princeton.

Three nights before the primary, Edwards delivered his populist spiel before a crowd of upscale, activist Democrats in Nashua. All five of the major Democratic candidates gave speeches, but Edwards stole the show. Even Kerry supporters joined in standing and cheering. In Concord two days later, Edwards gave the same speech. As best I could tell, the crowd of 500 or so was made up mostly of undecided voters, independents, and the curious. Their reaction to Edwardian populism was tepid. There was no Edwards surge in the primary. By the way, exit polls suggested Kerry won because of his political experience and perceived electability against President Bush, not his populist rhetoric.

Why doesn't populism work? For starters, it's pessimistic. It implies that most Americans are helpless. They're oppressed by narrow economic interests that dominate the country and are catered to by Washington. My guess is few voters actually agree with this vision of America. The populism espoused by Kerry and Edwards is mostly substance-free. Does Kerry have a serious plan to reverse the growth of HMOs or eliminate "influence peddlers" in Washington? Not a chance. Edwards's chief solution to the imagined hijacking of America by special interests is to enact mild curbs on lobbyists.

The real problem with the Kerry-Edwards brand of populism is its falsity. America's problems are not caused by corrupt corporate interests and their agents in Washington. As journalist Mickey Kaus has pointed out, it's not drug and insurance companies that make health care so expensive. Drugs are costly because pharmaceutical companies spend so much on research and getting drugs approved. Insurance company profits aren't a major cause of inflation in medical costs. "Demonizing them promotes misunderstanding of the situation," Kaus wrote. "It promotes the illusion that we can have all the drugs and treatments we want without paying much for them if only we eliminate unconscionable profits, if only we abolish what Kerry subtly calls the 'creed of greed.'"

There is a type of populism that is genuine, but liberal Democrats aren't likely to embrace it. This is social, or cultural, populism. It is a conservative populism that has turned southern, border, plains, and Rocky Mountain states into solid Republican turf. It has an ugly side (George Wallace), a controversial side (Alabama judge Roy Moore), and a timely side (opposition to gay marriage). It's mostly associated with traditional values, religious faith, respect for the military, and undiluted patriotism. Country club Republicans have been forced to accept it. Country club Democrats like Kerry can't.

For them, populism will always be a ploy. Kerry adopted a populist line after Howard Dean threatened to run away with the Democratic nomination. Besides Bush, Dean's major demons are "insiders" and special interests in Washington. Soon Kerry had a list of evil forces who are thwarting the aspirations of ordinary Americans. In January, Edwards began giving his "two Americas" speech. He is a multimillionaire, but as a child of the working class and a trial lawyer specializing in medical malpractice cases, he can at least make a case that he's a legitimate populist. Kerry can't. He's a faux populist.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

By Fred Barnes