The New Democratic Populism
"One of the interesting facts about this campaign is it has been able to bring together people across many political lines," the Rev. Paul Sherry, national organizer for the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, told me. "I do a lot of speaking around the country, and when I say that a person working at $5.15 an hour full time makes $10,710 a year, you can see people's eyes light up as they begin to think of their own circumstances." (Not only did the minimum-wage initiatives run a clean sweep but their conservative counterparts fared poorly. Three states--Maine, Nebraska and Oregon--featured ballot referendums modeled on the Grover Norquist-backed Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which severely limits the growth in state government taxing and spending levels. All of them lost.)
At the national level, cable pundits almost immediately focused on a handful of winning Democrats with conservative stances on social issues--Jon Tester's A rating from the NRA, Bob Casey's opposition to choice and, obsessively, former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler, who defeated incumbent Charles Taylor in North Carolina's 11th District while opposing abortion, gay rights and a guest-worker program for immigrants. But what the pundits didn't mention was the role in Shuler's victory of the district's opposition to "free trade" deals. The area's textile industry has been gutted by NAFTA, so when it came time to vote on CAFTA, Taylor was caught between his district, which wanted him to vote no, and the GOP House leadership, which wanted him to vote yes. So he skipped the vote altogether and CAFTA passed by one vote.
During the campaign, Shuler hammered Taylor for "selling out American families," and he wasn't alone in using trade as a wedge issue. A postelection analysis by Public Citizen found that campaigns cut twenty-five ads attacking free-trade deals, and that trade played a significant role in more than a dozen House races won by Democrats. In the entire election, Public Citizen noted, "no incumbent fair trader was beaten by a 'free trader.'"
"Democrats have coalesced in favor of trade policy reform over the past decade as President Bill Clinton's NAFTA, WTO and China trade deals not only failed to deliver the promised benefits but caused real damage," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch division. To get a sense of just how far the consensus on trade in the Democratic Party has come, consider that Shuler was recruited to run for office by none other than Rahm Emanuel, the man charged with ramming NAFTA through a skeptical Democratic Congress in 1993.
Indeed, back when Emanuel was the NAFTA enforcer, he met some of his stiffest resistance from a young freshman Congressman from Ohio named Sherrod Brown, whose twelve-point victory over incumbent Senator Mike DeWine was one of election night's highlights. In a column a few weeks before the election, David Brooks called Brown's Senate contest "the most important political race in the country," because as a "full-bore economic populist" Brown represented the most "vibrant strain" of the Democratic Party.
Brown is an across-the-board progressive: a supporter of gay rights, abortion rights and civil rights who voted against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act (though, disappointingly, for the Military Commissions Act during the campaign). In 2005 National Journal ranked him as more liberal than 86 percent of House members. But he managed to avoid being sliced apart by wedge issues or tarred and feathered as an out-of-touch liberal by focusing with Terminator-like persistence on a simple economic populist message: "fighting for the middle class," as his campaign manager John Ryan put it to me. Ryan says that even when DeWine attempted to change the topic or attack Brown, the campaign spent 50 percent of its airtime in TV ads responding to the charge "and 50 percent of Sherrod looking onscreen with a working-class message and a middle-class message."