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A New Populism?

Hillary Clinton; drawing by John Springs

Washington’s most influential Democratic centrist group, Third Way, has taken the lead in warning of a cliff at the end of the populist road. In a much-discussed Wall Sreet Journal opinion piece last December—all the more noticed because it appeared in the enemy pages of the Journal—the group’s Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler wrote that “nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats” than following the advice and examples of Warren and the new New York Mayor Bill De Blasio. Their main argument centers on Social Security and Medicare and what they call the “undebatable solvency crisis” facing both programs.5

They are not incorrect, certainly with regard to Medicare. And it’s also true that populists are kidding themselves if they think that all their investment goals can be met by taxing only the wealthy. Someday, perhaps, a Democratic president with a more amenable Congress will place before the voters the option of protecting Social Security by raising the payroll tax or raising the cap (workers now pay Social Security taxes only on about the first $115,000 in income), and we’ll see if citizens embrace populism in practice.

In the meantime, Obama has the Republicans to deal with. Some believe it’s not entirely inconceivable that the GOP-controlled House could pass a modest minimum-wage hike. In 2007 Republicans backed an increase, and George W. Bush approved it. But with Obama in the White House, Republican attitudes have hardened considerably.

As for the immediate future, there’s no apparent way out of the current stalemate, in which the House is controlled by right-wing Republicans. Of what use is a historic turn to the left when even the most moderate and incremental public measures will be voted down in Congress?

There are no reassuring answers to this question. The Democrats could surprise people this fall and win back the House of Representatives. They need just eighteen seats, which isn’t many; but bear in mind that in nine of the ten “sixth year” elections since 1910 (elections that take place during the sixth year of an incumbent president’s tenure), the president’s party has lost seats. Only in 1998, when Republicans were drunk on the Kool-Aid of Clinton impeachment, did the president’s party gain a few seats. Today’s Republicans, under pressure from the Tea Party, are more than capable of such overreach; but if one is reduced to counting on that happening, one is reduced to wishing. And even if the Democrats were able to win back the House, the Republicans would still be able to block measures in the Senate (indeed, they might win back the Senate). So the deadlock will probably continue until the day Obama leaves office.

This is why thoughts among Washington progressives are turning already to Mrs. Clinton. Will she—a follower of Robert Rubin through and through back in the 1990s—accept her party’s new line? She showed in 2008 that she’s willing to break from what was her husband’s policy when doing so might prove advantageous. As she marched her way through the Rust Belt and Appalachia—far enough behind that her winning seemed almost impossible, and desperate for some stroke of luck, some surprising theme that would change the dynamics of the contest—she denounced free trade and tried to fashion herself a champion of the working class at least for a while, downing a shot of Crown Royal at a working-class bar in Indiana.

It is not certain that Clinton will run. She isn’t young (sixty-six), and a presidential campaign is nothing if not exhausting. However, it does seem at this stage fairly certain that if she does run, she will be the Democratic nominee. And so insiders are looking for clues about whether she’ll be taking the kinds of positions that have created a following for Elizabeth Warren.

You can Google “Hillary Clinton populism” and discover for yourself the debate that’s been making its way through the pages of The New Republic, The Nation, The Daily Beast, The Washington Monthly, The Washington Post, and other venues. She has offered few to no clues herself thus far, although we can pick something up from reported staffing moves. Most notably, it seems that Mark Penn, the high guru of “small-bore” centrism whom she (and her husband) once followed devoutly, may not have any role in a next Clinton campaign. And Clinton remains close to Tanden and Podesta, who presumably will advise any campaign she mounts.

In other words, she is more likely than anyone else to give some political momentum to the new populism. But even if that does happen, it’s three years away.

This does not discourage Lane Kenworthy, a professor of political science and sociology at the University of Arizona. Kenworthy’s Social Democratic America has been getting some attention not so much for his proposals for policy, which are fairly standard liberal (but technically social democratic, as he rightly points out) items: universal health insurance, paid parental leave, universal early education, the minimum wage raised and indexed to inflation, and so on.

Rather, Kenworthy’s contribution is to say that as bad as things look today, as impossible as attaining any social democratic goals may seem, history in fact shows that while progress may take its time arriving, it always comes. “I expect the size and scope of American social policy will expand significantly in coming decades,” he writes, explaining that the problems and needs are simply too real for policymakers to ignore and will only get worse, demanding attention. Change takes time, but:

This is how social policy in the United States has evolved over the past century. It has expanded in fits and starts, bursts and lulls. Movement has been largely forward; backsliding has been rare. Simple extrapolation suggests that this is what we should expect for the future.

He then identifies five possible reasons why his assessment might be wrong and tries to shoot each down. Obstacle 1, that Americans don’t want big government, he answers persuasively by arguing, as many have, that Americans are rhetorically conservative but operationally progressive. He cites some data from the General Social Survey, an in-depth yearly survey of Americans’ attitudes on a range of issues that is used more by academics than journalists, that are nearly as eye-popping as the Norton/Ariely findings I mentioned above. For example, an “irregular series of polls” from 1980 to 2007 asked people whether they favored national health insurance, “which would be financed by tax money, paying for most forms of healthcare?” Nearly every time, he writes, 50 to 65 percent of respondents said yes.

He runs into a bit of a wall on obstacle 5: “The structure of the US political system impedes policy change.” Here, Kenworthy is reduced to hoping that, for example, another presidential election loss will force a reckoning within the GOP that will ultimately result in the party coming back toward the center. This should happen—it happened with the Democrats after 1988, their third consecutive loss, when an intraparty bloodletting pitted New Democrats against old liberals. But that’s no guarantee that it will happen with the Republicans.

Remember, conservatives believe that they lost the last two elections because they weren’t conservative enough—in the name of “electability,” the party put forward, in John McCain and Mitt Romney, people they regard as “squishes.” If the GOP nominates Chris Christie (if he survives his scandals) or Jeb Bush and loses, those conservatives will merely again be reaffirmed in their conviction. But perhaps if the party nominates Rand Paul or Ted Cruz and loses, then Kenworthy’s hope will prove correct, and the circa 2017 congressional GOP will be somewhat more willing to compromise with a Democratic president.

The irony here, of course, is that it was the first President Clinton who elevated the New Democrats within his party and marginalized the old liberals. Now the old liberals—and many new ones—may find themselves come January 2017 hoping that the second President Clinton wipes the slate clean of the New Democrats’ influence and legacy.

—February 6, 2014

  1. 5

    See Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler, “Economic Populism Is a Dead End for Democrats,” The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2013. 

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