There is the Angry Populist, the Calm Populist, the Polite Populist, the Executive Populist, and the Radical Populist. That’s who racing across New Hampshire chasing Democratic and independent voters in the days before the first presidential primary of 2004. Oh, there’s also Joe Lieberman.
Senator John Kerry, the leader in the polls, is the angry one. He doesn’t hoot or holler. But he declares, “It is time for us to get angry…and restore real democracy to the United States.” By that he means he wants to rid Washington of the money-grubbing special interests out. And when he has not been pushing that mission, he has been talking about his Vietnam days. On Friday, he appeared with Vietnam veterans at a rally in Manchester and told war stories. One of his television ads showed a war buddy of his talking about Kerry: “There’s a sense after Vietnam that every day is extra….That you have to do what’s right.” And the spot included video of Kerry as a soldier in Nam. Kerry is, by nature, cautiously passionate. A little anger is not a bad idea for him; it allows him to emote, which has not been his strong suit as a candidate. Heading into the final weekend, his strategy remained obvious one: talk about your record, bash George W. Bush for catering to corporate interests, and, most importantly, keep plodding ahead and don’t screw up.
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is now the calm one. He is more interesting to watch than Kerry, for he has the more difficult challenge. He has had to rejigger his approach. That has entailed burnishing his image as a responsible and straight-talking governor of many accomplishments while also maintaining his insurgent take-back-America message. At a rally on Friday night, he pulled it off. Speaking at Keene Middle School to an overflowing crowd of about 1500 Dean enthusiasts–a group of all ages–he nailed his case. With a calm, steady and firm delivery, Dean noted the qualities that would make him a good president: he is willing to stand up for what he believes, whether it is popular or not (the proof: his early opposition to the Iraq war and the No Child Left Behind act, his support of civil unions for gays and lesbians); he has experience and can deliver on health care (the proof: his success in Vermont); and, unlike other politicians, he tells the truth.
To prove that last point, Dean noted that his Democratic opponents say that America can have a middle-class tax cut and expanded education funding, kindergarten through college and expanded health care coverage. No way, Dean said, adding, “You know why 50 percent of Americans don’t vote? It’s because politicians talk like that before every election.” But, he added, when these pols enter office they cannot deliver on such promise. “You can’t win an election on promises,” Dean asserted. He, on the other hand, is willing to acknowledge the hard truth: “You can’t have everything.” Someone has to tell the people that. And Dean maintained he is the only candidate prepared to do so–to balance the budget and be realistic in terms of new social programs. He said his budget would have room for expanding health insurance, a program for early child development, and an alternative energy initiative.
In striking this stance, Dean was reminiscent of Paul Tsongas, the deceased Democratic senator from Massachusetts, who in 1992 ran for president hailing balanced budgets and accusing a little-known governor named Bill Clinton of pandering to voters by proposing various spending initiatives and a middle-class tax cut. Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary. He flopped after that.
But Dean had more to offer his Deaniacs than warmed-over, tell-the-ugly-truth centrism. He blasted George W. Bush for “shoveling money…into the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies,” and he complained that “all the things that happen in Washington happen for the benefit of corporations and special interests.” Dean added, “We want the country back.” And he spoke of his campaign as a movement designed not merely to elect him but to empower his supporters. The spin is, he said, that “this is a campaign of anger. This is a campaign of hope….I don’t want people to believe in me. I want you to believe in yourselves…..The biggest lie that people like me tell people like you is that if you vote for me, I’ll solve your problems. The truth is, the power to change this country is in your hands….On Tuesday, you have the power to change the Democratic Power.”
Dean exuded a quiet strength. He came across as determined and deliberate. His talk effectively blended the resume portion of his pitch and his idealistic call to arms. He got the mix right, as he positioned himself as a tough-love kind of maverick who could combine the message of Paul Tsongas and that of Paul Wellstone. And his supporters loved it. They cheered and applauded. They were pumped up. It was as if The Shriek had never left his throat. It was clear that Dean still had his ardent believers. But at this point Dean probably needs more than the revived enthusiasm of already-committed Deaniacs to win in New Hampshire or finish near the top. Can performances like this one undo the damage of Iowa? Has his appeal reached a natural limit? Dean and his followers–many of whom do appear to believe they are part of a movement–will know soon.
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina is the Polite Populist. On Friday, he visited the Page Belting company in Concord. It was there, almost a year earlier, “where people first saw the Edwards magic,” one of his aides told me. She was referring to a session in which Edwards met with some of the firm’s employees and the workers became teary while discussing the economic hardships they and their families faced.
Edwards was back now to have a similar discussion with two dozen Page workers. But this time they were surrounded by 150 members of the press. Edwards reeled off his “two Americas” speech, which he has refined to a smooth and seamless indictment of Bush’s Washington. There is one America where people get all the health care they need; then there’s the America with a health care system that doesn’t work for many and is controlled by insurance companies and HMOs. There is one America where affluent communities have wonderful public schools; one America where the schools are troubled. “We shouldn’t have two public school systems,” Edwards remarked. There are “two governments” in the nation’s capital: “one for the insiders…whatever is left is for you.”
Edwards did not raise his voice. He did not show anger. This son of a mill worker who became a millionaire superlawyer displayed earnest indignation, quiet outrage. He adopted a “get this” tone. He told the employees, “What goes on in Congress is that you have the lobbyists for the big drug companies and they’re all over the place and they come up to members of Congress and say, ‘Can you help us on the [Medicare prescription drug] bill?’…And then [the members] says, ‘Are we going to see you at the fundraiser tonight.”
The Page Belting workers did not respond with “amens.” Instead, they knowingly nodded their heads–especially when Edwards referred to predatory credit card companies that sock it to consumers who don’t read the fine print. He came armed with supposed solutions, such as banning campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists. “The Washington lobbyists are taking your democracy away from you,” he commented, “and we ought to stop it.”
Edwards never got mean or dark. He loaded his pitch with feel-good, can-do optimism, insisting his message is “based on politics of hope, based on the politics of what is possible.” He noted, “You deserve a president who can make you feel good about the future, good about yourselves again.” Then Edwards left in his campaign bus, dubbed the “Real Solutions Express”–which is not to be confused with Kerry’s bus, “The Real Deal Express.” Will Edwards’ kinder, gentler populism play? He does have one heckuva pleasant and persuasive manner. New Hampshire voters–and Democrats elsewhere–looking for populism with a smile and a down-home drawl will be tempted.
At a health care policy forum at the Palace Theater in Manchester, retired General Wesley Clark shared his views on health care with several hundred medical professionals. It was odd that he had to read his remarks. At this point in the contest–four days before the New Hampshire primary–a Democratic candidate should be able to talk about health care in his sleep. Clark began weakly, referring to his own brushes with the medical system: tonsillitis at the age of 3, appendicitis at 14, several gun shot wounds when he was in Vietnam. (“I think they hit me one more time, while I was crawling away.”) He noted that he had delivered health care to soldiers and their families, tossed off automatic rhetoric about health care as a “family value,” and decried greedy drug companies. It was standard fare, and the audience seemed less than engaged. A senior campaign aide for Senator Lieberman, was standing next to me and chortling about Clark’s underwhelming performance.
Then–like a good general–Clark briskly ran through a four-step program. Number one: if elected president, he would issue an executive order that would allow the reimportation of cheaper drugs from Canada and elsewhere. “Interesting,” murmured the Lieberman aide. Number two: direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to audit all drug companies to see if these companies had used government funding to develop drugs and not shared subsequent profits. “Wow,” the Lieberman aide said softly. Numbers three and four were less surprising: introduce legislation that would permit the U.S. government to bargain with pharmaceutical companies over the costs of drugs, and end barriers that keep generic drugs off the market.
Clark also outlined his plan for expanding health insurance. Yeah, yeah–all candidates have a plan. More significantly, he claimed to be a non-politician who was not merely willing to swing away at the drug companies on Day One but who also had specific ideas on how to do so. Here was a practical populist.
Representative Dennis Kucinich was the non-practical populist. He hit the stage after Clark. He slammed the other candidates for talking about health insurance, not health care. Speaking without notes, he made a passionate and effective case for a single-payer health care system that would provide extensive services for everyone and rid medicine of insurance companies and HMOs. “My question to you in New Hampshire is,” he said, “‘how much change do you really want?’ Do you really want to be free of…insurance companies…and pharmaceutical companies?” He was met with shouts of approval from the health care professionals in the theater. Perhaps that was because he had delivered an assertive and sincere presentation without becoming shrill. It was Kucinich at his best. He was a facts-based visionary. But it may well be that New Hampshire does not want as much change as he is offering. His go-the-distance brand of populism has yet to win him more than a percentage point or two of support.
As for Lieberman, he delivered an impressive briefing at the health care forum. It was chockfull of detailed and sensible-sounding policy proposals: a Medikids insurance program for children, health care centers in elementary schools, a Medichoice program to provide affordable health insurance coverage to adults, an executive order to reverse Bush’s decision severely limiting federal funding of stem cells research. But there was not one mention of drug companies, HMOs, or insurance firms. (Remember Lieberman is from Connecticut.) It was all policy, no populism. He is the odd-man out in the race.
Lieberman aside–and he may soon well be–populism is the rage in New Hampshire. Dean is probably correct when he boasts he was the first candidate in this year’s race to crusade against special interests. Now an assault on the rigged ways of Washington is part of almost everyone’s routine. It has become de rigeur. Even if the populism adopted by the leading candidates is limited, Dean can take credit for having changed the party, or at least its 2004 debate. The question is, will New Hampshire voters credit him for having done so?
DON’T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN’S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, “Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations….Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the the president that is as damaging as it is thorough.” For more information and a sample, check out the book’s official website: www.bushlies.com.