HuffPost Forum: The Question Of John Edwards' Populism

Is John Edwards' presidential campaign the test of progressive populism that Democratic activists have long awaited?

More than any other Democratic candidate, Edwards has adopted populist rhetoric, attacking those "special interests that have seized control over Washington." Edwards promises an all-out assault on a "tax code [that] favors wealth over work," on media ownership "dominated by a few powerful corporate interests," and on an economic system in which "40 percent of the income growth in the 1980s and 1990s went the top one percent.'

Edwards, in the words of blogger-columnist David Sirota, "is offering a courageous, full-throated indictment of Big Money.... Edwards says that 'powerful interests, particularly corporate interests, have literally taken over this government.' And Edwards hasn't just been talking about it - he has made a crusade against this, the issue of our day, the centerpiece of his campaign. He has, in short, made it the very reason he is running."

Will the success or failure of the Edwards campaign thus serve to answer the ideological and strategic debate between Democratic centrists and their more liberal critics - a debate that has dominated the Democratic Party since the 1960s?

The Huffington Post sought comment on this question from a number of political writers, activists and scholars, including Sirota; Al From, CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC); Robert L. Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future; Larry Bartels; Lawrence Mishel, President of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI); Time's Joe Klein; Paul Krugman of the New York Times; Chris Bowers of Open Left; Harold Meyerson, executive editor, American Prospect; John B. Judis, senior editor, the New Republic; Kevin Drum, contributing writer, Washington Monthly, and blogger Political Animal; Ruy Teixeira, fellow, Center for American Progress (CAP) and The Century Foundation; Michael Kazin, professor of history, Georgetown University; Andy Stern, President, Service Employees International Union (SEIU); and Matthew Yglesias, Atlantic.com.

The same three overlapping questions were put to each participant:

-- "Is the Edwards campaign a legitimate test for those who argue that the party should become more aggressive, more populist, willing to take on corporate interests, and willing to be an explicit advocate for the less powerful?

-- "If the Edwards campaign is a legitimate test, shouldn't he sweep the Democratic nomination fight since Democratic voters would be a core populist constituency?

-- "If the Edwards campaign is not a legitimate test, why not? His positions and rhetoric would appear to fit the bill."

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What follows are participants' responses, in some cases slightly edited for punctuation and length.


The answer to your question is yes and no. Yes, Edwards' campaign is a legitimate test of the populist economic message .... if Edwards wins, it will be because of his populist economic message - and that message has helped him stay competitive in the face of two celebrity candidates, and in the face of being outspent. If Edwards loses, I would say it has nothing to do with his message, and everything to do with the fact that celebrity and money still very much dominate politics....[T]he ideology already has passed the test. The fact that Edwards is competitive when he faces such steep odds shows just how far populism can take a candidate. Imagine if it was a level playing field for him - imagine if he was doing what he's doing, and not being outspent, and there weren't two media celebrities in the race.

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The classic populism of the Jacksonians and the Populist party was based on "producerism" -- the division between the producers and parasites. It was not the same as Marxism; the archetypical producer was the small farmer, not the wage-laborer, who was contrasted with the banker not the factory owner. It also had little to do with the division between rich and poor. It continues to resonate. Witness Clinton's and Perot's campaigns. Clinton's advocacy of those who "play by the rules."

I am not sure about Edwards. His 'Two Americas' speech from 2004 had echoes of populism, but his decision to devote himself to the poor was much more characteristic of limousine liberalism than of populism, and predictably has failed to resonate among the working and middle classes. His career as lawyer and hedge fund consultant would also put him on the wrong side of the populist tracks.

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Edwards' frustration is that he can't be a legitimate test, he hasn't been able to establish himself as the populist voice. Why? One reason is the simple historic nature of the Hillary, Obama campaigns - Hillary's growing gender gap is proof positive of that.

Second, perhaps more important, is simply to listen to Hillary's rhetoric. New energy resources and taking on the big oil companies. Health care and taking on the insurance companies. Economics and making this economy work for working people. The speech that most mirrored the AFL-CIO/EPI/CAF rhetoric on economy, ironically, was delivered by Hillary at Dartmouth....

[In] this election, with Hillary presenting herself as a populist, willing to take on the big interests (and her rhetoric is the reason that she's relatively 'teflon-ed' against Edwards' attacks on her) - I'd say Dems are getting a lot closer to where they should be - at least rhetorically....No doubt, money is buying into Democrats big time, and the party will have to decide whether its going back to the mid-70s compromise - socially liberal and economically Wall Street....So I'd argue that Edwards' fate isn't a proper measure, because most candidates - Hillary certainly - have moved to co-opt [populist] rhetoric. No one is running a DLC campaign here.

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The Clinton-New Democrat formula is the only formula with a track record of winning both the nomination and the general election. The track record in recent elections shows that the populist formula doesn't really deliver the very voters it's aimed at - white male, working-class voters - probably because they are the most skeptical of government delivering on its promises.

Clinton economics brought a lot of those voters - including union members - back to the Democrats because it worked, grew the economy, created jobs, and increased incomes. But the three principal elements of Clintonomics - fiscal discipline (balancing the budget), investment in people and technology, and expanding markets overseas - were opposed by the leaders of organized labor and the populist forces in the party....

The Edwards campaign is this year's attempt to restore the populist constituency in the Democratic Party. Certainly, his rhetoric is a test of the populist message. But the war is a complicating factor this year. While all candidates want to end the war, Edwards is trying to be the anti-war candidate, which appeals to the more liberal, upscale, anti-war elements of the party. And, Edwards personal actions - the $400 haircuts, the big house, and running a campaign much different than four years ago - also undercut his populist message to some degree. I haven't followed all his policies but the Economist said despite his rhetoric, his policies could have come from a centrist think tank. Certainly, that's the case for the earned income tax credit (a big anti-poverty policy which was at the heart of the New Dem anti-poverty agenda) and his health care plan which, like Hillary's and Obama's, eschews single payer and is grounded in the concept of shared responsibility....

I think the interesting thing is that [Edwards] hasn't had a groundswell of support from labor or the traditional constituencies. I think that poses an interesting question as to what the base of today's Democratic Party is. The working class constituencies - to whom the populist message is theoretically aimed - may not be a big part of that base if you define a base as the most reliably Democratic voters. The liberal, more-elitist vote, which is becoming more Democratic; and minorities, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, may be the new base. But I think that's yet to be determined. Key voters in recent elections have been moderates, independents, and middle-income families. We lost them in 2004, won them in 2006. And, it's not clear that the populist message wins them over.

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Certainly, Edwards is attempting to run something of an economic populist campaign. But he's hampered by the lack of a powerful populist movement which would help create the environment for such a campaign to catch on. And, aside from labor activists, not many Americans think about politics primarily in terms of moral have-nots and immoral haves, which is the basic Edwards pitch.

As many people have noted, a candidate running primarily on populist grounds has never been elected president. The only possible exception was FDR in 1936, but of course he was a popular incumbent. Bryan [ran a populist campaign] in 1896, of course, but his party was divided, which is one reason he failed to win any industrial state.

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It would be if Obama was not in the race. His anti-status-quo/change/anti-war/anti-Washington-lobbyist message does dilute and compete with Edwards. So it's not a clear competition of ideas as it would be without Obama.

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I think it's not a fair test because voters -- even primary voters -- are NOT getting a clear picture of the candidates' positions. You'll have to dig it up, but I'm sure I saw a poll in which Democratic voters believed that Hillary was the leftmost candidate and Edwards the rightmost. [See here.]

The candidates are all much more progressive/populist than anyone would have imagined a couple of years ago. Edwards tends to come up with the policy proposal first, but he's eventually emulated by the others -- and you have to be a serious political groupie to be in the business of inferring positions not from the policies, but by which month they're announced in. Basically, nobody is running on the pro-business, anti-class-warfare platform. We're all populists now.

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I don't think it's quite fair, either...in part because of the reason that Krugman cites....I think also, fairly or not, Edwards is tarred by his gazillions, his haircuts, and house, and by the perception that this is just expediency on his part. Paul Wellstone would have been a much truer test. Fred Harris, too.

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A recent Rasmussen poll had the following Liberal-Moderate numbers among Democratic voters nationally: Obama 34%-41%, Clinton 29%-47%, Edwards 26%-38%. So Edwards is both the least liberal and the least moderate -- lots of people just haven't bothered to decide. The Liberal/Moderate "ratios" for Clinton and Edwards are virtually indistinguishable....

I don't have any particular insight to offer regarding why Edwards has failed to take off. I note, though, that the Iowa poll numbers do not suggest that the gazillions, haircuts, house, or perception of expediency are the root of the problem. In last week's CBS/NY Times poll, 17% of Edwards supporters in Iowa mentioned "honesty" as their reason for supporting him (more than for Clinton or Obama) and 12% mentioned that he "cares about people" (more than for Clinton or Obama). Among all likely Democratic caucus-goers, 77% thought Edwards says what he believes and 17% thought he says what people want to hear. (The corresponding numbers for Clinton are 47-48, for Obama 82-12.)

More generally, no specific candidate is a "legitimate test" of a platform -- especially if one likes the platform and the candidate is tanking. It's always possible (and tempting) to argue that someone else would have done it better. Especially someone who is dead or retired. Alas for political science, we don't run elections in laboratories, so it's very hard to tell.

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Is it a test that none of the candidates even went to the DLC meeting in the Spring? Or, that the DLC types all dropped out and couldn't get any traction. Or, that Richardson doesn't present himself as a new Dem, even though he reasonably could. Or, that Hillary, who headed a DLC policy effort just last year, doesn't seem to be taking their positions or identifying with them. Are Democrats ever going to go for the individual health mandates that the centrists (DLC) have favored--NO! Will they privatize social Security, partially as the DLC recommended in the 1990s? NO! Why did the New Democrat Network gravitate to whole new set of positions, including [a] former DLC economist. The centrist/DLC mantras of the past are an anachronism. That's a story worth telling.

Nevertheless (now that I have that off my chest), I think you're asking a reasonable question. I think it is interesting how the debate among Democrats has shifted remarkably, so that many of the things that EPI, and our ilk, have articulated have now become conventional wisdom. Consider how the candidates have pretty strong universal health care with an employer mandate. Consider that no one is a flat-out proponent of globalization and more trade deals, and that Edwards, Clinton, and Dodd have all called, as we have urged, for a 'pause' or 'time out' on trade deals....

So, one problem Edwards has is that the whole debate has moved leftward.

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I suppose Edwards is a test, though more for his clear antiwar stand and slashing stump style than for his populist appeal....Also, to make a standard banal point, personal character always matters. Edwards may have the right message and still be the wrong messenger. A lot of people view him as weak (based on his 2004 performance), slick, and a little too shallow. So Edwards' appeal might be suggestive of how much support there is for his populist message, but hardly a conclusive test. He's more like a weekly quiz than a final exam.

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Telegraphically, the Edwards campaign would indeed be such a test if he faced "normal" candidates, but he faces two demographic breakthrough candidates, which brings a host of other issues into play. Hillary seems to have a far-larger working-class base than he, and Obama resonates with the young, whose neo-populism may be directed as much against the political system (against which Obama campaigns) as the economic system (against which Edwards campaigns). I think, as is often the case in the Democratic Party, that the populist sentiments of Democratic voters exceeds the populist sentiments of their candidates, Edwards excepted, but populism isn't the only factor in determining their candidate preferences.

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Well, that thesis makes a lot of sense to me. Some considerations I can think of -- on the other side:

1) Running against mega-stars like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is objectively difficult for reasons that have nothing to do with the appeal or lack thereof of populism. 2) Edwards' big problem in getting union endorsements hasn't been that they don't like populism, it's been that they think he's not going to get the nomination. This is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy since it's hard (impossible, probably) for populism to win without support from the unions that ought to be its core of support. That, though, is arguably a problem with union tactics rather than a problem with the populist message.

Most convincing, though, is probably 3): Even though Edwards is running a more populist campaign than are HRC or Obama, HRC and Obama are both running more populist campaigns than we saw from Kerry in 2004 (or, for that matter, from Edwards or Dean) or for Gore in 2000. Whoever wins the nomination will be an advocate of universal health care and all three are running on platforms that at least *sound* very different from the "free trade and balanced budgets" mantra from back in the day. Hillary Clinton gave a speech about the evils of economic inequality back in May. So, arguably, no matter what the fate of the Edwards campaign, the populist side is winning the argument.

Also 4): Arguably this has always been a two candidate race, with Obama playing the McGovern/Bradley/Hart/Dean "wine track" role and Hillary Clinton playing the populist "beer track" role, and Clinton's winning.

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There are several determining factors in a campaign apart from message. One such factor is media coverage, an area where Obama and Clinton have long dominated. Pew has data decisively showing the massive media [coverage] gap between the candidates. ...

Another factor is money. Spending money in Iowa has resulted in upward poll movement at least for Obama and Richardson, and also arguably for Biden. Edwards hasn't spent that much in Iowa so far, but he has risen slightly since he did go on the air a couple of weeks ago.

And identity plays a role as well, as voters tend to side with candidates from similar demographic backgrounds. This has actually long helped Edwards in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Media, money, identity, along with pre-established name recognition, favorability, and image all play roles. It isn't just about the candidate's message. To date, I think it could be argued that Edwards has actually done quite well, given comparatively low media coverage and money spent in Iowa. He has had little going for him in the state apart from message.

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This is a reasonable question, but I'm not sure that Edwardsian populism, as it has developed, is a legitimate test of populism per se. That is, it may be a test of the ability of Edwardsian populism to excite folks in a primary contest, but not necessarily a test of the potential role of some populist themes or approaches in a general election context.

More specifically:

1. Primaries are not general elections--issues of perceived electability are important in a way that is not true in a general election.

2. How clear is it to primary voters that Edwards is significantly more populist than Hillary--will it ever be?

3. Populism can still be helpful--a point in a candidate's favor--without providing the magical ability to overcome other liabilities, of which Edwards has a number-- not insignificantly ones that appear to contradict his rhetorical populism.

4. Edwards' populism has been (less so now) heavily invested in the poverty issue and it is not obvious that this is or should be a key part of an effective populist approach.

5. More broadly, Edwardsian populism may simply be off in some important ways from the kind of populism American voters are likely to be most responsive to....

[Teixeira quotes from his review of Sirota's book, Hostile Takeover]: Class-interest populism fundamentally misreads the way the average American sees the economy and the system. As economist Stephen Rose points out in a useful new paper, "The Trouble with Class-Interest Populism", the typical American-whether you choose to call him/her "middle class" or "working class" is simply not poor enough to be an unambiguous beneficiary of government action. Instead, their beefs with the system tend to be aspirational-that is, they're not rising far enough fast enough and the difficulties of doing so are far greater than they'd like....

So does that mean giving up on populism, in general, or opposing the way Big Money unfairly games and manipulates the system? No, but it does mean if you want to reach the typical American, you need to couch your populism in aspirational terms, not just, or even mostly, in how their interests are being betrayed by Big Money. They may nod in agreement with the point that their interests and Big Money's are different, but what they want to really know is: how can you help them get ahead?....

I certainly believe "populism" broadly-defined is part of [an effective Democratic strategy]. But I do think it makes a difference how that populism is pitched. I've called it "class-aspirational". Andrei Cherny called it "future-oriented". We can debate exactly how to do this, but we must get beyond the delusion that simply telling the truth about Big Money to the people is all the populism we need. If not, we'll keep on flunking the white working-class test with predictably bad consequences for the progressive movement and for the country as a whole.