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Are Democrats Sounding Populist Trumpets--or Liberal Kazoos? : Politics: The party’s ’92 candidates are presenting themselves as outsiders taking on the Washington insiders who have messed up.

<i> Kevin Phillips, publisher of the American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor" (Random House)</i>

Who’d have ever thought that Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Sen. Robert Kerrey of Nebraska, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and ex-California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. would all be running for the Democratic nomination for President in 1992--the year pin-striped party insiders have shrugged off as a cinch for George Bush?

But it’s a possibility--and irony--that’s already building political steam. After a decade in which two-thirds of Democratic Washington collaborated with 90% of GOP Washington to produce the biggest speculative financial bubble since the Great Depression and a bipartisan opportunity society for Charlie H. Keating Jr., Michael Milken and Leona Helmsley, the big-name Democratic insiders have abdicated, unwilling to scuff their Guccis in a hopeless 1992 election.

This has produced something unexpected: What may be the 20th Century’s largest array of populist and outsider presidential candidates, all calling for a grass-roots revolt against Washington and its special interests. Even the actor Tom Laughlin, who made the outsider “Billy Jack” movies, is weighing a run.

Americans may not yet appreciate the kind of rhetoric that’s unfolding. Harkin is a feisty populist who accuses “George Herbert Walker Bush” of being a rich man’s President, and Kerrey is a moderate populist who couches his anti-Establishment sentiment in the less fiery tones of a millionaire businessman and Congressional Medal of Honor winner. Wilder proclaimed his candidacy by denouncing the modern two-party system of “the party inside Washington, which makes the deals, and the rest of us--the party outside--that has to pay for the deals with higher regressive taxes and wasteful spending.” As for Clinton, he said, back in August, that he’d campaign “as an outsider, running against the established order of things.”

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Then there’s Brown, who was even angrier a few weeks ago, signaling he might try to “take on not only George Bush but the entire corrupt system--including those entrenched Democratic politicians who have turned our party from a voice of opposition into a party of complicity.” If you think some of this sounds a little like George C. Wallace--but without the race issue--that’s the point. One Brown adviser told the press that his man stands for Wallace’s three key 1968 slogans: “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference,” “Send them a message” and “Stand up for America.”

Let me stipulate: They don’t mean all of it. They’re politicians. Besides, the prohibitive odds on Bush’s reelection make the whole exercise somewhat academic. The last three elected Republican Presidents--Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan--were reelected to second terms by lopsided margins. Bush’s job approval ratings suggest he should be able to do the same--precisely why so many Democratic leaders have begged off.

Yet one man’s precedents can be another’s opportunity. If some outsider Democrat gets 45% of the vote in 1992, holding Bush to a historically weak 55%, that could signal an upheaval taking shape for 1996.

Moreover, many Americans forget how powerful anger and alienation have been in U.S. political history: Fighting the Bank of the United States and the political Establishment helped Andrew Jackson bring about a political watershed in 1828; Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans ran against the Southern “slaveocracy” and Dixie control of government in 1860; William Jennings Bryan seized the Democratic nomination--but narrowly lost the election--in 1896, by challenging Wall Street and government for the rich; Franklin D. Roosevelt started a new Democratic era in mid-Depression 1932, after calling for throwing the money-changers out of the temple and the GOP out of the White House, and Nixon started a Republican era in 1968 with a promise to empower “Middle America” and unseat the “Liberal Establishment.”

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Maybe the current anger at bipartisan “insider” Washington, in general, and alleged GOP complicity with the rich can’t develop that same intensity. But maybe it can. Earlier this year, the Kettering Foundation commissioned a national survey to figure out why Americans were so disillusioned with politics. Foundation President David Matthews summed up the answer: “People point their fingers at politicians, at powerful lobbyists and at people in the media. They see these three groups as a political class, the rulers of an oligarchy that has replaced democracy.”

So maybe what Democrats are starting to say is what a frustrated public wants to hear. Without a larger downturn in the economy, none of these people will unseat Bush--but that’s not necessarily the yardstick. Most major turning points of U.S. presidential politics have been preceded by elections in which the soon-to-triumph party and ideology lost because it was too early. This was evident from 1824, when Jackson lost his first White House run, down to 1964, when Barry M. Goldwater’s defeat was soon followed by two decades of GOP Presidents.

Of course, populism has its problems. One is that U.S. populists don’t speak with a national accent, but with a multitude of regional dialects not easily brought together. Harkin’s agrarian frustration has a different accent than the urban populism in the Italian neighborhoods of Mario M. Cuomo’s New York, which, in turn, is a far cry from that of Wallace country in the piney woods of southeast Alabama.

A second difficulty is that populism and liberalism aren’t the same thing. If any of these Democrats don’t know the difference--populism likes flags, criticizes welfare as well as Wall Street and keeps a gun in the pickup truck--they’ll learn it soon enough.

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Caveat No. 3 is that the 1992 Bush campaign is almost sure to pick up where it left off in 1988: With hard-hitting speeches and TV ads designed to resurrect liberalism’s not entirely undeserved reputation as a chicken-hearted, criminal-coddling, minority-pampering, taxpayer-subsidized rescue service for exotic wildlife and child-pornography distributors. Former fighter pilot Harkin got off to a good start, counter-imagewise, by announcing his candidacy at a steak fry in the birthplace of none other than John Wayne. But Harkin is already in trouble with the conservative media for hinting he flew jet fighters in combat when he only ferried damaged ones from Vietnam to Japan.

Still another weakness of populist-outsider White House wannabes is that they’re rarely credible in the President’s chief-of-state role. They’re hard to imagine as dinner partners for Queen Elizabeth, sophisticated collaborators of the Federal Reserve in a financial crisis or orators for the nation in some solemn moment. The upshot is that no flat-out populist has ever been elected President. Populism has never had more than a partial influence--either through an outsider politician with some larger credentials (for example, Jackson’s military record or Nixon’s foreign-policy experience) or because populist objectives caught on from a long national dialogue to become conventional wisdom and infuse the policies of Establishment politicians such as Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt.

The angriest populist-outsiders of 1991-92--Harkin and Brown--may fit this tradition of personal unsalability as occupants of the Oval Office. The fiery Harkin probably has no better odds of reaching the White House than the Iowan who ran as a populist third-party candidate a century ago--James B. Weaver. And if former seminarian Brown doesn’t strike the right posture, he could come across less a dynamic crusader than a Jesuit Harold E. Stassen.

Yet it’s equally true that the populists and outsiders of 1991-92, especially the boldest and cleverest, have an opportunity to develop a national dialogue that will change the political economics of the next decade in the same way that populist dialogues of the mid-1890s paved the way for the reforms of 1900-1914.

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Still, because Democrats are Democrats, it’s always possible that autumn’s warriors will become winter’s wienies--contribution-seekers in the penthouses of millionaire vegetarians, re-emergent acolytes of outdated civil-rights lobbies and avid co-conspirators of the National Union of Unnecessary Government Employees. For now, however, that sound some Democrats are hearing is something they haven’t heard for a long time: The unmistakeable sound of one of American history’s great political trumpets.


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