Friday Talking Points [20] -- Populism 101

Friday Talking Points [20] -- Populism 101
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No awards this week

A few quick thoughts this week before we get to the talking points. First, I will not be awarding the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week and the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week prizes this week. This is mostly because not much happened. Monday was the Presidents' Day holiday which most Americans don't even get off work anymore, and Congress showed its solidarity with the working men and women of America... by taking the entire week off. Plus, President Bush was out of town, so it was a slow week in Washington.

Secondly, nobody really shone in the spotlight or was caught cowering in the shadows of shame. Except, the newspapers tell me, John McCain.

The McCain/media scandal

I have to say that I have a problem with this mini-scandal. And my problem is with the New York Times to a certain extent, and to all of the American media on a much larger scale.

First, I don't care if McCain boinked that woman or not. My yardstick for sexual scandals goes something like this: if the elected official in the scandal is caught showing rank hypocrisy by doing something he or she has actively been fulminating against publicly for years, then he or she is absolutely fair game. An example would be an anti-gay politician who has worked on legislation restricting gay rights (and/or campaigned on the issue) being suddenly and publicly caught in a gay relationship. That shows such a deeply flawed character -- to make a political career out of self-hatred while moralizing in public about the same action -- that it is absolutely relevant and newsworthy. But if the politician has never made an issue of moralizing about sex (restricting what the neighbors can or cannot do behind closed doors), then I really don't care if they're getting blowjobs in the Oval Office or not, because it doesn't affect the way they do their job one whit.

So I have to say, I don't really care what John McCain's sex life is like. He's never (to the best of my knowledge) been a fire-breathing moralizer, therefore it's not hypocrisy for him to get a little on the side, if he is so inclined. It's a matter for McCain and his wife alone to deal with.

But what disgusts me is the fact that (1) the sex aspect of the story was pretty thin to begin with, (2) the newspaper rushed to print with the story because they were about to get scooped on it by another publication, and (3) that the New York Times and the mainstream media at large will only print a lobbyist scandal story if there's sex involved. That last one is the most important one to me, by the way.

If the media was doing its job in the first place, they would have dug out and vetted every single aspect of every leading candidate's personal history over a year ago. This is called investigative journalism, which seems to be on the endangered species list. This is also part of the media's basic job -- to keep us informed about the candidates before they become nominees, so that we're able to make informed decisions in the primary voting booth, and not have to regret it later. But the only way we are finding out about John McCain's history with lobbyists (to say nothing of reminding America about the Keating Five scandal) is if there's the hint of a little hanky-panky to go along with it. Which is pathetic. The real scandal (if one exists) is how close McCain is to lobbyists, which should have been brought up a long time ago, and not held back because it needed some sex to put it on the front pages.

So although they're technically not "Democrats," if I was giving out a Most Disappointing award this week, it'd have to be to the entire media establishment. For shame!

A primer on Populism

Now, I don't consider myself any sort of expert, or even "a leading voice in Populist thinking," since I believe that Populism by definition comes from the people and is therefore composed of a lot of voices. But I did write a (now dated) book called "How Democrats Can Take Back Congress" (this was before 2006, obviously) which explored ways that Democrats could use what I called "Neo-Populist" issues to win elections across the country.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have, of late, been inserting Populist themes into their speeches, in an effort to (depending on who you listen to) win votes in Ohio and Pennsylvania, or court John Edwards' endorsement. Since this may be the last time I will address talking points to both campaigns, I thought I'd run through a few handy Neo-Populist positions for either Hillary or Barack to insert into their speeches.

To be fair, both Clinton and Obama have been speaking about some of these issues. I don't have time to fully research all their recent speeches and quotes to see exactly what they're saying (if anything) on each of these issues, but I have included the ones that I've heard about in mainstream news reports of their respective campaigns in the past week or so. I apologize in advance if I have inadvertently omitted a position either has taken on the issues themselves, in other words.

I think both campaigns have valid points in their criticism of the other's speeches, I should say. Hillary is right to some extent -- Obama is a bit light on specifics at times. And Barack is right as well -- Clinton isn't as good as he is at hitting broad themes in order to reach out to all the voting public. I even wrote yesterday that if Obama goes all the way, he could wind up being the Democratic equivalent of Ronald Reagan, transcending Washington and the inside-the-Beltway punditocracy to speak directly to the American people and get things done by popular pressure on Congress itself. So while rhetoric can't be completely empty of meaning, rhetoric itself is a powerful tool that can be used quite effectively by a president.

So I offer the following talking points to both campaigns, because I think either could benefit from talking about issues that normal, middle-class Americans could actually see making a direct and concrete change in their lives for the better. Which is what the entire concept of Populism is supposed to be all about. All of these issues revolve around the concept of fairness.

[I have addressed some of these issues at length in previous articles, and I have linked to those where appropriate.]

Volume 20 (2/22/08)

Cap credit card interest rates

To her credit, this is an issue that Hillary Clinton has raised recently. But I have to say, capping credit card interest rates at 30% isn't really all that bold a position. How about capping them at something less than loan-shark rates? I'm no economist, but personally anything over 15% sounds more like usury than it does a normal business transaction.

This is an issue that cuts across all demographics, it should be noted. It's an important issue to almost everyone in America. Coming out strongly for capping the rates would show backbone against the banking industry, and put the candidate squarely on the side of the consumer.

"Paying over twenty percent interest on credit cards is obscene, and must stop. The banking industry needs regulation to insure that Americans with decent credit are not trapped in a cycle of debt by outrageously high interest rates on their credit cards. When I am president, I will push Congress to pass a ceiling for credit card interest rates, and I will cap these rates at 19%."

Minimum wage COLA

To his credit, Barack Obama has been using this subject on the campaign trail of late. Raising the minimum wage yearly with a cost-of-living adjustment ("COLA") means that Congress will never again be able to do nothing for a decade while the working poor fall farther and farther behind.

"Americans at the top of the economic ladder have benefited exorbitantly from the work of their employees, and it's time to address the fact that those at the bottom of the ladder spent a decade with no raise in wage at all. We can't rely on Congress to do the right thing every year, so we need an automatic minimum wage COLA each and every year to ensure that they do not get left behind."

All tuition tax deductible

Both candidates have their own ideas on how to make college more affordable. But both are merely incremental steps, minor tweaking of the tax code.

This is a fundamental issue, and should be attacked in a fundamental way. Just as any business is allowed to write off every dollar spent improving the company, private individuals should be able to write off every dollar spent on college tuition. Period. There should be no income tax at all on money spent for education. Whoever pays the money gets to write it off on their taxes, whether parents or students themselves.

As I said, it's a big issue, and it needs a big idea to make college education more affordable to everyone in the country.

"American families should not have to pay any income tax on the money they spend on higher education. There is no reason the government should get a cut of the money that families invest in their children's future, when those children are also America's future."

All charity tax-deductible

This one is just as basic as the last one. Many people who donate to charity do not get to write off such charitable donations because they don't itemize their deductions. Make one easy fix to the tax forms, and put the line to deduct charity on the main form instead of on the form where you itemize, and everyone in America can deduct their charitable givings from their income.

"Americans are the most generous people on Earth. Often those with the least are the first to give what they can when disaster strikes others. We want to give these compassionate taxpayers a break on their taxes for donating to charities in times of need and times of plenty alike. Because the government shouldn't make it harder for Americans to give to the less fortunate, the government should do everything it can to make it easier for such charity."

Remove cap on earnings for Social Security

Barack Obama has talked about doing this, at least in an incremental way (he talks of "raising the cap" rather than "eliminating the cap," but it's at least a step in the right direction). Hillary Clinton has also expressed support for the idea, but I haven't heard her leaning on the issue lately.

What is needed is to absolutely remove the cap entirely. By doing this, the rate itself could be cut slightly for everyone, resulting in a tax cut for 94% of working Americans. And the remaining six percent would just be paying exactly the same rate as everyone else instead of getting a massive tax break for the rich every single year. Making all working Americans pay exactly the same rate is going to sound pretty fair to the vast majority of voters, especially when you tell them they'll be getting a slight tax cut at the same time.

"Republicans love to talk about tax cuts. But the problem is, most Republican tax cuts don't actually mean anything to most Americans, while billionaires get a windfall. Removing the Social Security cap on earnings will mean that the wealthiest of the wealthy will now be paying exactly the same tax rate that firefighters, police officers, nurses, and teachers have been paying all along -- instead of paying a much much lower rate, as they have been with the cap. And to reward those hard working nurses and firefighters, we're going to cut their Social Security tax rate to a flat six percent, without raising the retirement age or cutting benefits. How can Republicans be against a plan that cuts taxes for 94% of working Americans?"

Tax all earnings the same

I have to say, both campaigns have been cheating on this one. Call it the Warren Buffett shell game. Both candidates have used some form or another of the line (originally spoken by Buffett himself): "Billionaire Warren Buffett pays a lower percentage of his income in taxes than his secretary does." Hillary has used the line when tepidly coming out for raising the Social Security cap (see previous item), and Barack has used the line in at least one of the televised debates. But neither candidate addresses the underlying unfairness built in to the tax system -- Buffet pays less than his secretary in part because he pays Social Security taxes on only a tiny fraction of the money he makes, but the main reason he's paying a lower rate is that most of the money he makes is labeled "capital gains," while all the money his secretary makes is labeled "income." And income is taxed at a higher rate (sometimes twice as much) than capital gains are.

This is monstrously unfair, and needs to be addressed. But Hillary Clinton has actually voted to keep the status quo on capital gains earnings, rather than tax them at the same rate as income. Barack Obama has voted against such measures. So I see Obama making this case sooner than I see Clinton, but I think it's a valid case for any Democrat to make.

"Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. I think that's wrong. I think income is income, whether you are a hardworking janitor or a hedge fund manager making millions. And I don't see the logic in taxing the hedge fund manager at half the tax rate anyone else would pay if they made the same money as income. I will restore fairness to the tax code by repealing capital gains tax giveaways to millionaires, and tax them the same way the middle class is taxed, instead of having a separate tax system for the wealthy."

A-la-carte cable television

You can call this a frivolous issue if you want, but I disagree. Require the cable and satellite television companies to offer consumers channels on an a-la-carte system: you pay for the channels you want to watch, and you don't have to pay for the channels you never watch. This would also have the result of disarming the airwaves Puritans, because any family with kids could just not subscribe to any television that they wanted to shield their kids from.

"I want parents all across America to be able to decide for themselves which channels they want, without making them pay for the ones they don't want their kids to see. I want to help families control their own entertainment options, while Republicans want to preserve the profits of the cable and satellite television industries."

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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