Election 2006 Brings Populist Muscle to Washington

Among the freshman Democrats set to converge on Washington this January will be a group of assertive and articulate economic populists -- "class warriors" -- with the potential to shift the Dems' center of gravity to the left on the kind of bread-and-butter issues that once differentiated the two major American parties. Legislators like these haven't been seen in D.C. for a generation.

Their message is simple: Reaganomics and Clinton's New Economy have been tried and tested, and they've entirely failed to live up to their promise for the majority of Americans.

Jim Webb, the senator-elect from Virginia, gave notice in the heart of the corporate right's tribune, the Wall Street Journal, that business as usual wasn't on his agenda with an op-ed titled, simply, "Class Struggle." In it, Webb called "our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century" the most important issue we face today. He lamented that "[i]ncestuous corporate boards regularly approve compensation packages for chief executives" that "are out of logic's range," while the minimum wage "has not been raised in nearly a decade." Webb, Ronald Reagan's former Navy Secretary concluded that "trickle-down economics didn't happen" as "wages and salaries are at all-time lows as a percentage of the national wealth" and "workers' ability to negotiate their futures has been eviscerated..."

Variations on that message reverberated in dozens of House districts and will result in an extraordinary block of legislators in the Senate, as Webb, Claire McCaskill (Mo.), organic farmer-turned-pol John Tester (Mont.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) join senators like Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Russ Feingold (Wis.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa).

These politicians ran on cleaning up the corruption -- legal and otherwise -- that's tainted Washington politics in the eyes of so many Americans, and many of them ran against the occupation of Iraq. But trade was the core economic issue that these new progressive populists adopted as their own, and it put many of them over the top.

According to an analysis by Public Citizen (PDF), in 2006, 18 House races saw "fair traders" replace "free traders" -- supporters of the status quo -- and not a single "free trader" beat a candidate promising to reform U.S. trade policy. Eleven open seats were picked up by candidates opposed to existing trade policy, while not a single open seat was won by a "free trader." In every Senate seat that changed hands, a fair trader beat an anti-fair trader -- it was a clean sweep.

But winning was the easy part. Now they'll square off against a Democratic leadership that has already signaled that it will fight any movement to the left. "If we win … we will have to govern from the middle," incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told the San Francisco Chronicle before the election. That center has been distorted by 25 years of backlash conservatism and is now what David Sirota calls the "phony centrism" of the DC pundit class, not the center where most Americans actually live. These populist Dems will have to overcome an enormous amount of political inertia after decades of legislating away from America's working poor and middle classes.

It's noteworthy that most of America's international trade deals have come on the Democratic Party's watch: Of nine major rounds of negotiations completed since World War II, eight were signed and sealed under Dem presidents. The political party that supposedly represents working Americans has long been the one that can get these deals hammered out.

By definition, forging a new economic direction will require a degree of distance from D.C. lobbyists. "Free-trade" is a convenient euphemism for lobbyist-written investment agreements; Public Citizen found that, of 800 "experts" who sat on the advisory boards that worked out the thousands of pages of WTO and NAFTA treaties, there were a dozen representatives of labor and the rest were multinational executives and various lawyers, lobbyists and sundry industry experts. Ohio Senator-elect Sherrod Brown wrote in his book, The Myths of Free Trade, that corporate jets crammed with CEOs and lobbyists were stacked up for hours in the air-space above Washington in the lead-up to the vote on NAFTA. Just before the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) passed the House by the narrowest of margins, Democrats who had actively lobbied their peers to support the deal "earned a standing ovation from lobbyists and a word of thanks from [Dennis Hastert] during one of the last business-coalition meetings with House leaders before the vote."

But, as the New York Times reported, a "split" has developed among Democrats about how far they should go trying to reform Washington's influence industry:

None of the [lobbying] measures [proposed by the leadership] would overhaul campaign financing or create an independent ethics watchdog to enforce the rules. Nor would they significantly restrict earmarks, the pet projects lawmakers can anonymously insert into spending bills, which have figured in several recent corruption scandals and attracted criticism from members in both parties.
After Steny Hoyer (Md.) defeated Jack Murtha (Pa.) for the position of House Majority Leader, K Street threw him a party. According to The Hill, it " was a genuine celebration that the more familiar face had won." "It was totally crowded, and it was festive," said one Democratic lobbyist. Another added: "I think Steny is known in the lobbying industry as someone you can talk to."

The new populists will face a bruising battle with Democrats like Hoyer. And it will be fought in a media environment that has so thoroughly embraced the idea that anything Democratic and Republican elites agree to must be good for the American people that leading pundits don't even feel the need to make arguments for new trade deals. Sebastian Mallaby wrote recently in the Washington Post that "denying the economic case for trade is like pretending that tax cuts pay for themselves" -- he didn't bother with the case itself -- and the New York Times' Thomas Friedman admitted that he had written a column in support of CAFTA even though he "didn't even know what was in it." He said: "I just knew two words: free trade."

Contrast that position with what Sherrod Brown told me last year. "Yes, we want to trade," he said, "Democrats, Republicans, small companies, big companies, labor unions -- we all want to trade, but we … want a global economy that's very different from the one we have now and one that's going in a very different direction from the direction we're going in now."

The crucial question is whether populists like Webb and Brown can broaden their argument -- whether they can articulate a coherent economic philosophy that goes beyond bashing "fat-cat CEOs" for off-shoring jobs. That message is a good one for a campaign -- it's easy to understand, appeals to American nationalism and fits on a bumper sticker -- but it's attacking a symptom rather than the disease.

Will they argue that we already have a rules-based trading system with most of the world that needs extensive reforms, and that they need to happen before we tie ourselves up in more regional or bilateral trade deals based on the same model? Will they look hard at the tax codes, not only to remove the incentives for companies to shift production overseas, but also to create new incentives for keeping production at home? Will they restore FDR's National labor Relations Board to what it once was and stop the 25-year assault on union organizing launched by Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher?

If they do, they have the potential to make an impact that matches their rhetoric, and the United States will again have a party of the working class. If they fail, voters will be stuck choosing politicians based on their looks, their hair or on some fraudulent blather about their "values," and the hole we've been digging ourselves will just get deeper.

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