Friday, May 06, 2005

I've got your populism right here

Despite having given over my soul to Matt Yglesias evangelism, I have to take issue with his assertion that left-populism doesn't have a serious constituency within the Democratic Party. His view of the Edwards campaign differs sharply from mine:

Dean eventually collapsed basically over "electability" concerns, and we wound up with Kerry versus Edwards. Here Edwards tried to play the populist card against Kerry a bit, but didn't go too hard at it (because he wanted to be Vice President), and his own DLC associations made this a rather unlikely move anyway.

Certainly, Edwards didn't hit Kerry or any other Democrat too hard, but there was very good reason not to do that. If you use your massive populist cred to obliterate your eventual nominee's populist cred, you've given the election to the Republicans. I can't think of an Presidential election in my lifetime when the candidate coded by the media as the more populist choice lost. As it turned out, Kerry was no good at looking all populist anyway, but Edwards was right to not shoot him in the ass from the beginning. Don't attribute a weird desire for second-bananahood to Edwards when you can attribute the much more reasonable belief that gigantic risks are involved in playing hardball.

Edwards spent the late months of his primary campaign playing the hell out of the populist card -- he just didn't target any Democrats. I know you've read this before, but since people are forgetting it, I'm putting it out there again:

“Today, under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one: One America that does the work, another America that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America that will do anything to leave its children a better life, another America that never has to do a thing because its children are already set for life. One America -- middle-class America - whose needs Washington has long forgotten, another America - narrow-interest America - whose every wish is Washington's command. One America that is struggling to get by, another America that can buy anything it wants, even a Congress and a President.”

Populism? Check. Revived a moribund candidacy? Check. It's this populist message that made him the last to fall. And when he fell, it was to the same electability considerations that took out Dean. As Will Saletan couldn't stop telling us, the Kerry campaign achieved victory on the backs of fools who thought the muddlemouthed Yankee who'd done something in a long-ago war was more electable than the poor boy with the best stump speech Carville had ever seen:

In Oklahoma, both Clark and Edwards beat Kerry by 13 points among "agrees with you" voters, but Kerry got away with a competitive finish by thumping them among "can defeat Bush" voters. In South Carolina, Kerry lost "agrees with you" voters to Edwards by a 2-to-1 margin but escaped with a respectable second thanks to "can defeat Bush" voters.

This isn't a rejection of populism. Even the most committed populist could vote against the populist candidate, given sufficient confusion about the electability situation. That's what took out the Edwards campaign.

When you look at the story of the Edwards run, it's a story about how left-populism remains healthy and strong.

4 comments:

Rousseau said...

I continue to think Kerry was a great nominee, just it was a shitty situation all around. The one time the public actually heard him, and not just heard the media say he was boring, he killed Bush in the national security debate. The solemn, serious stentorian candidate was a good choice for what was seen as an election about national security.

In contrast, Edwards could not even shine in a debate. I'll admit that his speeches may have been more inspiring though. And perhaps we just needed to cede national security voters, and focus on domestic issues. In such a case of course, a loss would still be probable and the pundits would be mocking Democrats for choosing the wrong guy in January 04.

It turns out tho that neither realm was really important, when homophobia rules the day. But whatever.

The interesting question being, do we rather have had a candidate who wore down Bush on foreign policy, or one that challenged him on economic programs? Interest choice, the results of which probably lead to today (the admin never putting Iraq in the news, but social security it).

Neil Sinhababu said...

I don't think there was any way to run away from foreign policy this year -- we had to address that issue from the beginning to win. But I think Edwards could've done better than Kerry on foreign policy, because Edwards brings more message discipline and ability to communicate effectively. Kerry's war-hero resume simply didn't get integrated into his media persona, and it gained us nothing. His Senate experience became a net negative, because it included lots of votes that could be twisted against him, and when have the American people ever looked for experience in a President anyway?

Rousseau said...

Edwards had a Senate vote too, and kerry warheroness certainly stopped some level of chicken attacks. Just because it wasn't as much as we would like, it was still helpful to some degree.

And you ignored what I said was Kerry's most crushing factor, that standing next to the President discussing the war, Kerry looked more Presidential. That was the only way for us to gain serious ground there.

Clark might have done that part just as well, but I don't think anyone else would have.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I doubt that Kerry warheroness actually prevented any chicken attacks. Also, his longer Senate record allowed more for attacks than Edwards would've faced.

I don't remember much media spin about Kerry himself after the first debate. I do, however, recall lots of "Bush was grimacing and moaning" media spin. Heck, Dean could've stood up there and got us that.