Things are going unusually well for the Democrats right now, in large part because they've found their voice again. Whether that voice ultimately is John Kerry's (and a bit circumlocutory) or John Edwards's (and trial-lawyer smooth), the message that they and their fellow Democrats have been delivering on the campaign trail sounds more classic Democratic themes than the party has heard in a long time.
In Campaign 2004 the Democratic Party has returned to issues of poverty and class, issues that the party's presidential candidates have not run on in decades. By the late '80s, as political strategist Stan Greenberg and The Post's Thomas B. Edsall documented in a pair of influential books, many white working-class voters had come to view the Democrats' anti-poverty programs as thinly disguised efforts to help African Americans at their expense. Millions of these voters crossed over and became Reagan Democrats. As a consequence, no Democratic presidential candidate since Walter Mondale in 1984 has really made an issue of the persistence of mass poverty in America. At least until this year.
But this year, without great fanfare, it's back. Edwards's stump speech deals at length with the 35 million Americans who live in poverty, the invisible poor who make up the other America. Kerry routinely refers to "the other America," too, and to the growing and pervasive unfairness in American economic life. It all sounds a little like 1964, when "The Other America" -- socialist critic Michael Harrington's searing account of poverty amid affluence -- helped give rise to Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty.
It isn't 1964, of course, and the Democrats have painfully learned one of the chief political lessons of the '60s: The politically sustainable programs tend to be those that are universal, rather than race-specific or means-targeted, and those that reward individual initiative. Moreover, their neo-war on poverty comes inextricably intertwined with their war on middle-class stagnation. The candidates all call for a higher minimum wage, for comprehensive health insurance, for increasing funding as well as standards for troubled schools, for energy-efficient and job-generating public works, for community service in return for subsidized college tuition, for the re-legalization of a worker's right to join a union, for fairer international trade. More in the spirit of the New Deal than the Great Society, they advocate policies that would help not just the poorest 15 percent of Americans but the bottom 70 percent.
But in speaking as they do of specifically helping the poor, they have nonetheless broken a two-decade taboo of Democratic politics.
And yet the sky has not fallen, or even sagged.
I can think of three reasons for this sea change. First, as Bill Clinton predicted when he signed the 1996 welfare reform bill, taking welfare off the table has made the remediation of poverty a less controversial concern. (As policy, welfare reform may have actually hurt the poor, but as politics, it has made them less of a pariah.) Second, the huge wave of immigrants into low-wage jobs has changed the face of poverty in the United States; Americans understand that most of the poor are working poor, and hard-working poor at that.
Third, and hardest to measure, is the fear of falling to a life on the brink of poverty, a fear that is widespread among manufacturing and some service-sector workers. The clearest proof that "outsourcing" has changed the political climate is that a candidate such as Edwards can talk about helping the poor to an audience of white workers who understand he could be talking about them. Or that Kerry can gain credibility with such a crowd by railing at an administration that helps investors but leaves workers behind. Such talk has not come naturally either to Kerry or Edwards. One participant in a private meeting Edwards had a year ago with labor leaders on the issue of trade describes the North Carolina senator as "clueless" when it came to workers' concerns over agreements that privileged property but not labor.
But Edwards and Kerry have been campaigning full time for a while; they (and their pollsters) picked up on anxiety over the economy and anger at the administration that was not so apparent from the Senate floor. They took ideas from the unions, from Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, from each other. (Great poets, T.S. Eliot said, don't imitate; they steal -- and the job of president is at least as serious as that of great poet.) The only candidate who seemed impervious to experience on the campaign trail was Joe Lieberman, who ran so single-mindedly against the long-gone party of Mondale and Mario Cuomo that he failed to notice actual voters had grown nervous about the newly global labor market.
What Kerry, Edwards and the new Democratic mainstream are advocating is a kind of majoritarian progressivism -- using government to defend the interests of the broad nation at a time when both globalized capitalism and George W. Bush reward chiefly the rich. An anti-New Deal Republican in a post-New Deal economy -- engendering levels of inequality not seen since pre-New Deal America -- has produced a generation of neo-New Deal Democrats. That's one of the surprises of 2004, but it makes perfect sense.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. This column originally appeared in Thursday's Washington Post.
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