Thursday, January 3, 2008

Will 2008 be the Year of the Populist?


How else to explain the insurgent popularity of Mike Huckabee?

There is always a populist somewhere in the Democratic field, at least early on. John Edwards has tapped into a vein of traditional Democratic working-class and man-of-the-people appeals; and as the message seems to be catching on this election cycle, other Democratic candidates are scurrying to don the populist cloth. Even Hillary. "The wealthy and the well-connected have had a president for seven years," she told a crowd in Ottumwa last night. "Meanwhile, most Americans have seen their incomes stall."

But I honestly don't think I can place a single Republican populist in the Republican field, ever. I have certainly never seen one with the support Huckabee is currently enjoying.

The Huckabee campaign presents a real opportunity for head-scratching on the part of the bought-and-paid-for corporatists of the Republican Party, which has traditionally been business friendly at the expense of all other interests.

None of the other Republicans candidates have taken up the charge. In fact, Frederick of Hollywood stuck to the script (there's a writer's strike on, you know) and continued to insist that "[N]ot enough has been done to tell what some call the greatest story never told, and that is that we are enjoying a period of growth right now."

It doesn't hurt the populist message any that oil hit a hundred bucks a barrel the day before Iowans caucus. John Edwards immediately seized on the price of oil and incorporated it into his campaign message the day before the first votes are cast. "Today's report that the price of oil has reached $100 a barrel is just another example of how corporate greed is squeezing the middle class," said Mr. Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, in a statement. At a packed coffeehouse in downtown Iowa City yesterday, he asked the crowd, "Are you going to let corporate greed steal your children's future?"

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That message can't help but hit home in a state where towns are far-flung, and farms dot the landscape. And every one of those farms has at least a couple of 250-gallon tanks (one for gas, one for diesel) that have to be filled up regularly, and there is no buy-in-bulk discount. (Those Massey-Fergusson and John Deere tractors and combines that plant and harvest a lot of the food you buy at Albertson's and Safeway get fueled up at home, not in town at the gas station.)

Huckabee frequently cites escalating fuel prices as a major concern for voters, and even goes so far as to contrast CEO pay with stagnating wages. On New Years Day he told an audience that "A president needs to understand that what's good for the American economy needs to be good for all Americans."

He also contrasts his own humble roots with the privileged life of his chief rival here in Iowa, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "If politics is going to end up being nothing more than about who has the most money, then we've not had a presidency, we've had a plutocracy, and we might as well put it on eBay and sell it to the highest bidder," he said yesterday in Mason City.

Huckabee might be getting grief from that embarrassing gasbag Limbaugh and his slavering minions of the so-called "right" - but his message is resonating with people who are more concerned about paying for their next tank of $3 per gallon gasoline than whether they ditched their illegal viagra before they attempted to clear customs after their latest Dominican fleshpot cruise.

One of the pillars of Huckabee's economic plan is a "fair tax" - a national sales tax that would replace the income tax (this is anathema to business interests, which guard their favorite loopholes in the tax code as jealously as a Texas high-school cheerleaders mother). Conservatives and liberals alike denounce the notion as dangerous, because it would have to be much higher than what Mr. Huckabee has proposed in order to raise enough revenue to keep the country running. Critics also charge that the "fair tax" Huckabee proposes would hit the very working-class people he aims to help the hardest.

But that doesn't stop it from resonating. It hit home with 22-year-old Jason Downs, a University of Iowa student who recently went to a Huckabee rally. "Right now the middle class is paying more taxes, the upper class has abilities to get accountants and move funds around and all that. Where if you have a consumption tax, it's going to be a fair amount," said Mr. Downs.

John Edwards, who never left Iowa after the 2004 election, has been priming the populist pump in Iowa ever since. And with energy prices so high, and healthcare so tenuous (farmers are self employed and have to buy their own health coverage, unless a spouse works "in town" and likely only took the job in the first place in order to get insurance. And still the premiums and copays keep going up.)

Whatever happens tonight in Iowa, and next week in New Hampshire, the economic message of populism is going to influence the rest of the campaign.

And while I am not a populist (insert joke about city dwellers and public transportation here) I welcome the message. For too long corporate interests have run roughshod over the interests of ordinary people, to the point that it now represents a serious threat to our liberty. So I welcome anything that might reverse that trend.