Armchair Populism

One reason I remain skeptical of advice that Democrats should sound more “populist” is that the audience for this advice always seems to be well-off liberals, and the people who tend to give this advice either aren’t in a position to practice it, or when they are, they flinch.

Case in point: Today’s hero, Ted Strickland, the former governor of Ohio who was defeated in his bid for re-election last month. In an interview with the Huffington Post, he gave the site’s readers exactly the red meat they love: Obama and other Democrats, he said, suffer from “intellectual elitism” that makes them “hesitant to talk using populist language” or “draw a line in the sand.” He denounced Obama for saying he would be willing to negotiate with Republicans in the current fight over the Bush tax cuts, declaring, “If we can't win that argument we might as well just fold up.”

Tell it! Not surprisingly, Strickland was the toast of the Netroots town: A DailyKos front-pager announced “Ted Strickland Speaks for Me On This One.” My distinguished predecessor, Michael Tomasky, declared them “Wise Words.”

But what happened when Strickland had his chance to “draw a line”? Here’s the candidate in action, answering a question from a Youngstown-area paper during the campaign:

Q. Would you encourage Congress to extend or make permanent the Bush tax cuts for all Americans?

A. As governor, I have cut taxes for Ohioans. Our state's income tax has been reduced by 17 percent since 2005. Additionally, I have cut taxes for seniors, Ohio businesses, military retirees and on advanced energy projects that create Ohio jobs.

Here he is in a September 7 interview with CNN’s John King, who asks a complicated question about extending the Bush tax cuts:

STRICKLAND: Well listen there are no easy answers, John. And I want the people of Ohio --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's a no.

(LAUGHTER)

STRICKLAND: No. I'm trying to speak the truth here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.

STRICKLAND: There are no easy answers and for snake oil salesmen to come along and make promises that can't be fulfilled and to say we're going to do this and it's going to solve all of our problems, that's just simply not the way it is.

Here’s more of Strickland on taxes, from the same debate:

I have worked with business leaders, members of the Ohio Business Roundtable and others to -- to embrace a tax reform that was passed before I became governor.

I'll embrace a competitive tax structure that my Republican predecessor put in place.

It’s true that in one respect, Strickland employed populist language; he denounced his opponent, John Kasich, for having worked on Wall Street, calling him an “outsourcer,” and accused him of a conspiracy to privatize Social Security. Noam Scheiber, in The New Republic the day after the election, credited that limited, modified populism for Strickland’s electoral success, if success is defined as losing by only 250,000 votes.

For the most part, though, Strickland played it very safe, as Monica Potts concluded when she looked at the race for TAP’s September issue:

Strickland may luck out in that Kasich, who once worked at Lehman Brothers and hosted a Fox News show, is running so far to the right that he has pledged to completely eliminate the state income tax. But Strickland's own tax-cutting stance makes it hard for him to ridicule Kasich's pledge, a lesson for other Democrats who have chosen to tack right on fiscal issues.

Exactly right. And exactly why the calls to “talk using populist language” would be more credible from people who actually tried it – and not just in denouncing their opponents, but in taking stands on issues that matter to people. In fact, why not just skip the “populist language” and just make the argument for responsible tax policy? It won’t play as well with the HuffPo crowd, but it might make sense in Ohio.

-- Mark Schmitt

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