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A Bush-Kerry Fight to Define Populism

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Recent polling suggests the Democratic case is sticking. In mid-January, a CBS/New York Times survey found that by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1, Americans believed Bush was more focused on the interests of “large corporations” than “ordinary Americans.” Also, 57% said Bush’s policies favored the rich.

Some political analysts say even if voters believe Bush favors the affluent, that doesn’t mean they will vote against him -- especially when national security concerns loom large. Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, notes that voters usually give Democratic presidential candidates higher marks for caring about people like them, even in elections a Republican wins.

“Winning the compassion issue doesn’t mean winning the election,” she says.

Republicans are building two main defenses against Kerry’s drive to paint Bush as an economic elitist.

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One is to question Kerry’s credibility as a populist by pointing to his comfortable upbringing and extensive campaign contributions he has received from Washington lobbyists.

“Over time, it is going to become clear that in cozying up to special interests and accepting their cash, Kerry says one thing and does another,” says Ralph Reed, the Southeast regional chairman for the Bush campaign.

Perhaps more important, Republicans plan to counter with their own set of populist appeals centering on social issues, taxes and national defense.

Republicans see several issues that could hurt Kerry with culturally conservative, blue-collar voters he hopes to attract with his economic populism. Topping the list is Kerry’s opposition to a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which GOP insiders believe Bush will soon endorse.

Republicans also point to Kerry’s vote against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed by Clinton, which said states did not have to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. And they cite his repeated votes to reduce defense spending.

Kerry’s support over the years for tax increases could allow Bush to shift the debate from big business to big government. And though Kerry now says he supports the death penalty for terrorists, he once voted against it -- and opposes capital punishment in all other instances.

Kerry “reinforces rather than blurs all the cultural divides in America,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres.

It’s possible a Bush-Kerry race could revive themes common in the three GOP presidential victories of the 1980s. In those races, Ronald Reagan and Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, used on cultural, tax and defense issues to win support from socially conservative, blue-collar voters.

But the younger Bush faces a more complicated equation in deciding how heavily to rely on such topics.

Kerry advisors believe his service in Vietnam and as a prosecutor in Massachusetts -- as well as his backing of welfare reform and the hiring 100,000 new police officers -- would defend him against arguments that he is outside the cultural mainstream.

Democrats and union leaders also express confidence that anxiety over the economy will eclipse social issues among blue-collar voters.

“Some guy who doesn’t have a job isn’t worried about gay marriages,” said James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

And if Republicans focus too much on gay marriage, they risk alienating upscale, socially liberal voters who in the last decade trended Democratic due to their support for gun control and abortion rights.

On the other hand, Democratic pollster Mark Penn cautioned, his party would run the risk of alienating more-affluent swing voters if it turned up the heat too high on economic populism.

“To be successful, the Democrats’ message has to evolve ... to a formula for broad economic success,” said Penn. “And the party’s success may hinge on how well it makes that transition.”


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