NASHUA, N.H. -- Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) came here Wednesday afternoon speakin' and shoutin' populism. Well, not shoutin' exactly. More like enthusiastically declaimin'.
"I'm running for president so you will have a president who's on your side," he said, "and who will take on the powerful interests that stand in your way."
He named those interests: "the drug industry, big oil and HMOs." He brought up Enron and WorldCom, Tyco and Tyson, corporations that "take advantage of [the president's] creed of greed." He vowed to repeal last year's Medicare bill -- a bill that established "a benefit for prescription-drug companies" -- in favor of one that allows the state and federal governments to negotiate lower drug prices. He promised to repeal the ban on reimporting drugs from Canada.
And Kerry was just warming to the occasion. He next took up "the fight to make our workplace fair." He pledged "to remove every single loophole, every single incentive, every single provision that rewards Benedict Arnold corporations and their CEOs for moving profits and American jobs overseas."
Republicans have already begun attacking Kerry and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as populist poseurs. Kerry, they note, is a son of an old Boston family with a prep-school pedigree, and Edwards is a fabulously successful trial lawyer (albeit, as they neglect to note, the son of a mill worker). In the world according to the GOP, a Democratic candidate who sticks up for working- and middle-class America is a quivering mass of inauthenticity if he makes more than 50 grand a year and doesn't go bowling every Tuesday.
What really bothers Republicans, though, isn't the alleged inauthenticity of the Democrats' populism; it's the demonstrable efficacy of the Democrats' populism. It's when Democrats campaign against the country club, the late Lee Atwater famously noted, that they win. Moreover, if a high-bracket income and an upper-class upbringing turn a Democrat's progressive populism into a sham, what do we make of the greatest
progressive populist of them all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt? In 1936, FDR closed his first re-election campaign by pledging, at a Madison Square Garden rally, that in his next term as president, the "forces of greed ... would meet their master." One week later, the inauthentic populist of Hyde Park was re-elected with 61 percent of the popular vote.
In fact, a Democratic doesn't have to sound like William Jennings Bryan or Harry Truman -- or even John Edwards -- to plausibly put forth populist themes. Al Gore, let us remember, was lagging in the polls until his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 2000. In that speech, he came out breathing fire against oil and tobacco companies and HMOs. He declared that he was a partisan for the embattled middle class. Republicans scoffed then as they are scoffing now, but the speech worked: Gore surged into the lead and held it until the first debate (and regained it on election day, for what little that was worth).
In theme and particulars, Kerry's speech Wednesday echoed Gore's. Both spoke of two sets of rules for two different Americas (Edwards does this even more explicitly), both identified corporate bad guys, both pledged to rebalance what has become a hugely inequitable society, both stressed repeatedly that they were on the side of average Americans.
Kerry comes to the populist manner no less unnaturally than Gore. There's a portion of Kerry's authentic self that he has learned to squelch, lest he come off as a discursive elitist, or worse. He began his speech Wednesday at Daniel Webster College, for instance, by noting that Webster's portrait hangs in the U.S. Senate. A year ago, he would almost surely have followed this with a Webster story -- one New England senator saluting New England's greatest senator of the pre-Civil War period. Wednesday, though, he noted that Webster's picture hangs in the gallery and -- so long, Daniel -- turned instantly to the fight, unfolding now in Congress, to preserve overtime pay. Kerry alludes more often now to particular people he's met during the campaign, and to their struggles to get a job, to pay for college or to find affordable medical care.
The fact is, no Democratic candidate can avoid sounding populist themes in 2004. Populism is on the agenda because George W. Bush has put plutocracy on his -- and the nation's -- agenda. The very raison d'être of this administration is favoritism to the rich. Kerry, Edwards, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) all sense that Bush is on very shaky ground here. Recent New York Times and Washington Post polls show that the public views Bush as favoring corporations over the broader public.
Bush's State of the Union address made clear that the president means to play the national-security card and punch some culturally conservative hot buttons as his way of winning -- or should I say sucker punching? -- working-class voters who would otherwise be prey to the Democrats' populism. Unlike Edwards, Kerry may not be to the populist manner born, but he's getting it down pretty convincingly withal, not to mention brandishing national-security bona fides as compelling as Clark's -- and more compelling than Bush's.
Actually, Kerry's service in Vietnam, and his lifelong association with veterans' issues thereafter, works as a twofer for him: It not only gives him credibility on the issue of force; it also provides the one unambiguously populist chapter in his life. Kerry's war, largely spent on a Mekong Delta gunboat, was a grunt's war, though he himself was an officer. The guys who served with him, and the guys who have come forth to say that Kerry saved their lives, were working-class guys who saw Kerry, for all their differences, as a comrade. Those are credentials that Clark hasn't really brandished; he was already on a fast track up the military ladder when in Vietnam, while Kerry, like most of the grunts, was a civilian who was passing through.
The minimum requirements for a Democratic presidential candidate this year are the ability to take the economic fight to Bush and the ability to seem a plausible commander in chief. For much of 2003, John Kerry, on the defensive for his vote to authorize the Iraq War, seemed unable to strongly press his case. But he has clearly found his voice again. Bush and Karl Rove should not relish a fight with the Mekong Delta candidate.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.