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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

A Bush-Kerry Fight to Define Populism

The leading Democrat is labeled a cultural elitist. He says the president favors the powerful.

February 15, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The stage is being set for a general election campaign shaped by dueling forms of populism, with Democrats accusing President Bush of favoring the rich and Republicans preparing to wield cultural issues against John F. Kerry, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Kerry, like his remaining party rivals, portrays Bush as the servant of an economic elite that tramples the interests of average people. "This administration has embraced the creed of greed," Kerry insists.

In response, Republicans are beginning to depict Kerry as the embodiment of a cultural elite that mocks the values of most Americans. "Kerry is way out of the mainstream," says Jim Dyke, communications director for the Republican National Committee.

At stake as these strategies evolve is whether swing voters will cast their ballots primarily along lines of economic interest, as Democrats hope, or cultural allegiance, as Republicans generally prefer.

The result may pivot not only on the arguments the campaigns raise, but on the backdrop against which they play out.

"If the economy is improving, the pendulum swings to the cultural side, and Kerry, if he's the nominee, could be dead," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

"If all the reports coming out now prove to be wrong [and the economy remains slow], I don't know if the Bush people can get the campaign focused on cultural issues. Then Kerry's economic populism might work."

These competing forms of populism would not be the only arguments shaping a Bush-Kerry race. Republicans intend to characterize Kerry as an unprincipled flip-flopper, while Democrats are sharpening their attacks on Bush's credibility. Each man can be expected to question the other's competency on assuring America's national security and stimulating the economy.

But the effort by each camp to define the other as out of touch with most voters -- either economically or culturally -- could prove critical in their prospective political war.

Economic populism has been a central domestic message of every major Democratic presidential contender this year, except for Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. That emphasis -- along with a related cooling toward free trade -- marks a significant shift in the party's message from the Clinton era.

Though President Clinton struck populist notes, he also tried to court business and made inroads among more affluent voters by stressing the link between opportunity and personal responsibility.

In 2000, Al Gore swerved from that approach, framing the election as a choice between "the people versus the powerful." Gore's defeat sparked controversy among party strategists -- some argued his populist appeal allowed him to erase Bush's lead early in the race; others contended the message drove away upwardly mobile suburban voters Clinton had attracted.

But apart from Lieberman, who ended his candidacy earlier this month, this year's Democratic contenders have adopted versions of Gore's argument, lashing Bush with language that famed populist William Jennings Bryan might recognize.

All accuse Bush of favoring oil companies through tax subsidies in his energy policy and producing a Medicare drug bill that helps insurance and drug companies more than seniors. All charge that Bush's tax cuts have benefited the rich at the expense of the middle class. All say his trade policies favor corporations over workers. All say he has given industry too much influence over regulation.

Unlike in 2000, these charges have drawn little protest from Democratic moderates. "George Bush has made populists of us all with an administration that tilts so blatantly to the interests of the privileged and powerful," says Will Marshall, executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank. "It has got to be at the center of the Democratic critique of Bush."

Strikingly, the leading Democrats have extended their argument to denounce the overall distribution of influence and wealth in society. These arguments, emphasizing class inequities, arguably carry them beyond Gore's theme.

In every speech, Edwards talks of "two Americas" -- one for affluent families "who get everything they need," one for those "who have to struggle for everything."

Kerry laments what he views as a power imbalance between workers and employers. "In all my years, I've never seen the workplace in this country as unfair as it is today," he says.

Building on Clinton's priorities, Kerry and Edwards want to expand access to healthcare for uninsured working families, increase the minimum wage and provide tax breaks for the middle class while rescinding the Bush tax cuts for the more affluent.

But both go beyond Clinton by pledging to challenge pharmaceutical companies over high drug prices, pursue labor law reforms that would make it easier for unions to organize, and recast free trade deals to force developing countries to more rapidly improve labor and environmental standards.

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