Finally, Elite Democrats Are Feeling the Heat

David Broder recently wrote a column in the Washington Post warning of a battle between sensible centrists and "vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers on the left" and their heroes.

He singled out Ned Lamont in Connecticut and, in Ohio, Sherrod Brown, whom Broder called "a loud advocate of protectionist policies that offer a false hope of solving our trade and job problems."

Broder's ire shows how media establishment types and defenders of the status quo are "freaking out" because a majority of Americans are not forming their opinions according to the opinion-makers' predictions, according to one leftwing blogger -- political activist David Sirota.

Change is in the air, and the people who have been holding onto power in Washington are worried.

It is the Republicans' betrayal of middle-class voters that got them into the hot water they're in this year, Brown says. "People look at whose side are you on?" he says. "The Republican leaders in the state see government as a piggy bank.[Ohio's Republican Senator Mike] DeWine and that crowd are giving away tax breaks to drug companies and the oil industry. People reject that."

As for Broder's critique, Brown shrugs it off. "Reporters and editors in Washington have always hated my position on trade," he says. "Out here they don't feel that way."

The controversy over Brown -- whom the National Journal compares to John Edwards, saying he's turned his "liberal" record in Congress into a popular pitch for "economic populism" -- captures a basic struggle within the country.

Brown has always been for establishing fair trade, raising the minimum wage, and breaking the oil and drug companies' stranglehold on public policy. He has also opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. These positions turn out to be particularly popular with voters this year, both in the Rust Belt and around the country, as polls show the public definitively opposed to the Administration's war in Iraq and in favor of progressive wage and health care policies.

But, as David Sirota put it in his furious blog following Broder's column, the ragged people who work at manufacturing jobs in Ohio -- those Brown represents -- aren't the people Washington insiders care about.

"In David Broder's world, those hundreds of thousands of blue collar workers who have been thrown out onto the street thanks to NAFTA and China PNTR are the filth of the earth that high and mighty elite Washington journalists like him cannot be bothered with," Sirota ranted in vituperative-blogger fashion. "In David Broder's world, any request for our trade pacts to include restrictions on child slavery, environmental degradation, and pharmaceutical industry profiteering off desperately poor people, positively un-American. Why? Because David Broder lives in a place where all of these critical issues are merely just more fodder and gossip for a newspaper column -- not real challenges in his life, nor in the life of the people he spends his time with in the Washington Beltway."

In the Democratic Party, the economic populists are fighting an uphill battle against the Washington in crowd. The outcome of that struggle is one of the interesting issues up for grabs in this fall's midterm elections.

Across the country, the Democrats are all over the map on Iraq and other fundamental issues. "I understand there's not going to be a national Democratic policy on Iraq," Brown says, "because Harold Ford doesn't want to say what I'm saying. Everybody runs their own race the way they run it -- that's endemic in the party and maybe in politics generally."

But for Brown, being a straight shooter seems to be winning politics.

"He is a person who says what he thinks," says Progressive Democrats of America chapter member John Cross. "Despite fourteen years in Congress he's pretty straight-forward. I think people appreciate that."

But, as Sirota laments, it's not a quality that's necessarily prized in Washington. Take Rahm Emanuel, head of the DCCC, who is another Sirota nemesis.

A rather breathless Newsweek story on Emanuel and his brother Ari -- who happens to be the model for the smarmy Hollywood agent on the hit HBO series "Entourage" -- gushes over the two men's similar roles as gatekeepers and kingmakers in their intersecting Hollywood and political worlds. One big question in this fall's midterms is what chance does the rabble who care about "kitchen table" issues have against this glamorous "in crowd" of the Washington and Hollywood elite?

Sirota calls the coming election a "tidal wave" heading for Washington's "hall of mirrors," conjuring up a massive populist uprising against the smug establishment types that will smash their arrogant worldview to smithereens. It's a gratifying image. But the positions of individual candidates around the country don't necessarily sustain it. Along with the Sherrod Browns and Ned Lamonts, there are the Maria Cantwells and James Webbs, who don't take such a strong position on getting out of Iraq, and who supported CAFTA and other free-trade bills. Around the country, a majority of Democratic Congressional candidates are not calling for withdrawal from Iraq.

Still, "the growing feeling against the war in the country is boosting Democrats' chances, even when they are too afraid to press their advantage," says veteran Democratic campaign strategist Steve Cobble. "The main reason the Republicans are in trouble is because they lied about a war which has turned out to be a disaster. That fundamental fact should not be forgotten, even when individual Democrats shy away from running against the war."

Certainly the Democratic leadership wants to capitalize on that sentiment. In his book The Plan, Rahm Emanuel has a chapter entitled "Who sunk my battleship?" (All the chapters have cutesy titles designed to appeal to younger, hipper voters). Emanuel criticizes the Bush Administration for its handling of the war on terror. But here's the plan he comes up with: "We cannot fight and win a long war without more troops. ... We need a bigger, better-equipped Army."

Sure, "the administration jeopardized the success of our mission in Afghanistan by shifting troops to Iraq because it didn't have enough to go all out in both places," and "Osama bin Laden got away at Tora Bora in part because we didn't have the personnel to pursue him." But the answer Emanuel proposes is the Joe Lieberman/Hillary Clinton bill to add 100,000 soldiers to a U.S. Army that is losing soldiers at an alarming rate while bogged down in an unwinnable civil war. Worse, Emanuel lumps together Iraq and the war on terrorism generally -- giving credence to the Bush Administration fiction that the U.S. presence in Iraq is part of the effort to fight terrorism, instead of a tragic, costly distraction that has only helped create a bigger terrorist threat.

In his chapter on universal college education, "Toga Party," Emanuel proposes "big ideas" that sound good, but could easily be whittled down to teensy-weensy micro-policy initiatives. He points out that college tuition has more than doubled in the last five years, while "the Bush administration pushed the largest cut in college aid in history," shutting the door to higher education for much of the middle class. He endorses the idea of a $3,000-a-year tax credit, and, even better, tuition grants to the states on the model of nineteenth century land grants. But who knows whether the "billions we can save by lending directly to students instead of subsidizing banks" will materialize, particularly given the Democrats' reliance on the financial industry (where Emanuel worked for years).

If there is going to be a tidal wave in November, it will have to be pushed along by voters who are far more assertive than most of the Democratic candidates. And, of course, which candidates make it at the House level is going to be determined in large part by Rahm Emanuel, who controls the national party's purse strings.

The DCCC, with it's "Red to Blue" program for winning the midterms and taking back the House, vets candidates regularly for viability and makes decisions about financing that can cause any given campaign to sink or swim.

"At some point they'll pull out of all but about 25 House races," says veteran politico Bill Dixon, who ran Gary Hart's presidential campaign. "They have these meetings on a daily basis about who to dump and who not to dump."

In both the House and Senate, the most the Democrats can hope for is a slim majority. That, combined with their internal disagreements about how best to govern, doesn't bode well for massive legislative change. Even so, a political upheaval in November could send a reverberating message through Washington.

"It's not just the number of seats the Democrats win," says Sherrod Brown. "It's the message voters send that they are unhappy with Bush." He points to the increasing willingness of Republicans to defect from the White House on a variety of issues, from torture to privatizing Social Security.

If the Democrats do retake the House, Senate, or both, Brown says, "We pass a new minimum wage right away, the first week, pass the 9/11 Commission recommendations, pass legislation negotiating drug prices -- substantive legislation." On that "populist" issue, the minimum wage, he points out: "There are always the votes if the leadership schedules it. If we brought it to the house floor almost all the Democrats and half Republicans would vote for it."

Pressure from below could make a major difference -- even on the most cautious politicians in both parties.

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