Populist in Substance AND Speech

Responding to Meyerson's article (which excellently lays down the Democrat's problem with the working class, but hides when solution time comes 'round), Brad Plumer writes:

Personally, I'm against "economic populism" as a political strategy. I prefer something along the lines of Eliot Spitzer's outlook on things: use regulation to correct market failures and get the capitalist system working more efficiently. That's a cumbersome message, but speechwriters can have at it. Also, I'd prefer a set of policies that reduced "economic risk" while promoting more of the sort of risk-taking that makes capitalism so marvelously vibrant. For instance, universal health care would help cushion your family against a job loss, but it would also encourage you to move jobs, relocate, seek a bold new career for which you might be more suited, without being chained down by the fear that comes with switching jobs and possibly losing your coverage. The end result, in theory, is a more dynamic economic world. What's more: It's populist, but it doesn't sound populist.

I agree with Brad entirely on policy here, but couldn't disagree more on the politics. To begin, I'm a huge advocate of using Spitzer's government v. corporations formula in conjunction with a risk reduction philosophy to form the Democrat's economic message. Spitzer has perfected the art of taking on the corporations in a way both economically sound and politically effective. We do need toothy oversight of the multinationals and we do need a government that proves itself willing to stand up for the marketplace. Indeed, right there comes the first break -- Democrats should value the marketplace over its corporate inhabitants. That gives us the edge in the economic values debate, too.

On risk, I've been slapping this donkey for awhile, and have only grown more convinced that it's the right move to make. The role of the government should be to grease the market and reduce risk to the worker. Universal Health Care, Social Security, universal day care -- all this needs to be implemented so workers aren't tied down to a particular job and stuck in a situation that doesn't fully utilize their abilities. Further, if the government takes responsibility for security, Americans have the freedom to be entrepreneurs. Anyone want to argue the good of entrepreneurship? Thought not.

My problem with Brad comes later, when he says "it's populist, but it doesn't sound populist". That's a real problem, if true. Only, I don't think it's true. And it certainly doesn't need to be true. Populism simply means favoring the worker. Fighting corporations with unfair business practices and creating a marketplace where ordinary citizens are free to make occupational choices because they're not tied down to this or that employer is, in a word, populist. Now, it's entirely possible that Democrats will step onto the podium and, through herculean effort, rob these tenets of their populism -- one just needs to read Kerry's speeches to appreciate our capability for snatching incoherence from the jaws of good politics. The sort of public wonkery he died by is bad politics but would've made for good policy. Populism, conversely, is great politics but often makes for bad policy. The challenge here is to merge the good economic principles of risk management and effective regulations with the powerful electoral effects of populism. Having a package that is populist but doesn't sound it is moot -- you still need to get elected. But framed and sold correctly, these packages can be very populist. They can be about protecting the worker from the whims of multinational corporations, both by making the companies play fair and by cutting the chains that leave Americans hostage to their job. And if we can't sell that, it'll only be because we chose populist policies but sold them as if our audience were pro-growth technocrats.

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