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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lux: Centrist Dems Must Embrace Populist Message of Election

The following excerpt by Democratic strategist Mike Lux, author of The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, is cross-posted from HuffPo:
…The many losers on the Republican side were to my mind some of the people and groups who have degraded our politics and policies in the worst kind of way — the biggest names among them besides the actual candidates including Karl Rove, the Chamber of Commerce, Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, the Wall Street money boys, Big Oil and Big Coal, and the extremist anti-gay and anti-choice groups. It is a pleasure to see these people, corporations, and groups unhappy for a while — not out of any sense of vindictiveness, but just knowing that if they were feeling happy the rest of us would be suffering mightily because of their terrible agenda for America.
But there is one other set of people and groups who lost in this election as well, and it is important to note that as well: Democrats who don’t want to have a populist “class warfare” kind of message. The Obama team, after wandering for two and a half years in the unproductive vineyards of D.C. centrism, finally planted its flag last fall in the populist turf of Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy and reframed the election as a make-or-break moment for the middle class, campaigned aggressively on more taxes for the wealthy and more regulation for Wall Street, and ripped Romney apart on the way Bain Capital hurt its workers and out-sourced jobs. Obama was in trouble before making that turn, but once made his poll numbers started rising and he was able to rally both the democratic base and swing vote working class voters to his side. Meanwhile, most of the Senate candidates who won tough races were flaming populists, people like the Wall Street accountabilty crusader Elizabeth Warren, the working class champion Sherrod Brown, Tammy Baldwin who bragged in her stump speeches about opposng the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the fiercely anti-big money in politics Chris Murphy, and Heidi Heitkamp who bragged in her ads about suing big corporations as ND Attorney General.
But it wasn’t just the candidates who were populists, the voters clearly were as well — especially the swing voters. One of the most fascinating findings of post-election polling by Democracy Corps and CAF was that swing voters who ended with Obama were actually even more populist than Democratic base voters. Swing voters mentioned the 47 percent video as one of their top three doubts about Romney more than base voters 31-26, they mentioned Bain Capital more often by 24-16, and they mentioned that Romney would follow Bush trickle down policies more often by 22-16 percent. And for both swing and base voters on this three top doubts question, over half of all the responses were about Romney being for the rich and out of touch with regular folks, while the next highest basket of concerns related to fears about Romney cutting social insurance (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare). And voters strongly oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as part of the budget deal; they think creating jobs is a higher priority than cutting the deficit; they oppose cuts in college aid and education, programs for children, worker training; they are overwhelmingly in favor of public financing of elections and other proposals to take corporate money out of politics. There are plenty more statistics in the poll and memo, it makes for great reading, I’d encourage people to check it out.
This is an old argument. It started when D.C. Democrats close to the business lobby, mostly Southerners, started the DLC after Walter Mondale lost to Reagan in 1984. Populism never works, they claimed, although their old chair Bill Clinton won the ’92 race with a campaign based on taxing the rich and fighting for the forgotten people who “work hard and play by the rules”, which sounds oddly like populism to me. Pollsters like Mark Penn carried the no-populism for Democrats torch for many years, ending with Hillary’s campaign digging herself into too deep a hole to climb out of in the 2008 primaries before turning to working class populism to win most of the contests at the end of the primary season when it was too late. Third Way — the younger, hipper version of DLC — now is the leading advocate in the party of the no-populism cause. They decried Elizabeth Warren’s “catastrophically anti-business message” at the Democratic convention, then watched as the speech helped boost her from a couple points behind Scott Brown to a few points ahead of him, never to get behind him again in the campaign.
Now to be clear, I think the progressive populism message needs to be tempered (as both the President’s message and Elizabeth Warren’s was) in some important ways that would not muddle their progressive policies. For example, an understanding that cutting the deficit over the long run is important is both good policy and good politics. I think Democrats should have specific proposals that cut waste in government such as subsidies to huge profitable agribusinesses and energy companies that don’t need to be subsidized, and clean up the weakly written federal government contracting policies that allow cost over-runs with no penalties. I also think Democrats should do far more than they are doing, both in policy and in their message, to focus on helping small business start-ups, and helping small business compete on a level playing field with the corporate behemoths who are trying to run them out of business in order to destroy the competition. Beefing up anti-trust enforcement, breaking up the big banks so that smaller community banks and credit unions have more ability to give loans to small businesses, giving the Small Business Administration more money for loans to small business, enforcing trade laws to make sure countries like China aren’t cheating medium and small companies here, and creating contracting and procurement rules that make sure the federal government doesn’t do most of its business with big companies are all ways progressive populists Democrats can promote small business.
So, yes, Democratic populist candidates need to be clear that they are for lower deficits, reducing waste in government, and helping small business. But none of these points takes away from that populist message of fighting for the middle class against Wall Street and other big money special interests. I think anyone looking at the message and electoral coalition for candidates like Obama, Warren, Sherrod Brown, Tammy Baldwin, Chris Murphy, and Heidi Heitkamp, and doesn’t see populism there is smoking some strange weed bought from their friends on Wall Street. The argument that populism doesn’t work for Democrats comes out of the 2012 elections in about as good a shape as Karl Rove’s reputation.

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