It's the Green Economy, Stupid

It's populist out there. Way populist.

The dominant ideology among this year's Democratic candidates for seriously contested Senate and House seats might be called neo-Bryanism. Where once William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic nominee for president, thundered on behalf of beleaguered late-19th-century farmers against "the cross of gold" (Wall Street's tight-money policy), today's down-ticket Democrats are running against oil companies and Wall Street's commodity speculators. And as Bryan touted free silver as the fix for farmers' credit woes, today's Democrats are pushing alternative energy as a solution for spiraling gas prices and heating bills, as well as a jobs-generator--a 21st-century public-private Works Progress Administration--for a troubled economy.

In Colorado, Rep. Mark Udall, seeking an open Senate seat, calls for "cracking down on Wall Street speculators who are driving up the price of gas." In New Hampshire, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, favored to unseat Sen. John Sununu, a Republican, this November, is running an ad unveiling her plan for the economy to "crack down on oil-company price gouging and Wall Street speculation." She wants to end tax breaks for the Exxons and Chevrons, the ad continues, "so we can invest in alternative energy that creates New Hampshire jobs." (For his part, Udall also calls for "fast-tracking energy alternatives to create Colorado jobs.") Shaheen also attacks Sununu for voting for Phil Gramm's "Enron loophole" in 2000--a bill that limited the government's ability to regulate the energy-futures market.

On the Web site of Dan Maffei, who almost ousted James Walsh, a Republican from Syracuse, New York, from his House seat two years ago and who is seeking that seat again (not against Walsh, who declined to stand for re-election), you'll find a counter merrily ticking away the amount of Exxon-Mobil's yearly profits. Kay Barnes, the former Democratic mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, is seeking to oust Congressman Sam Graves, a Republican, by attacking his dependency on contributions from oil and gas companies.

In their campaigns two years ago, the current freshman class of House and Senate Democrats almost universally came out against the kind of trade deals that enabled U.S. corporations to shutter factories here and open them in China. This year's Democratic candidates are every bit as skeptical about free trade's benefits as the 2006 crop was. Maffei, running in the Rust Belt of upstate New York, has one ad in which he stands in an overgrown weed patch that, he says, "used to be full of people coming to work." Unfortunately, Washington "gave a tax break to companies that sent those jobs to China," a problem he pledges to fix by bringing alternative-energy jobs to Rochester and Syracuse.

This year's explosion of Democratic populism should be no surprise, coming as it does in the midst of an economic downturn that follows the only recovery in American history during which median family income actually declined, and at the end of a Republican presidency reviled for its plutocratic priorities. But the Democrats only attained full-fledged neo-Bryanism after the rise in gas prices and the Republicans' assault on them for being insufficiently pro-drilling. Their response has been to counter-attack their GOP opponents for kowtowing to oil companies and commodity speculators.

"The overwhelming theme" of Democratic campaigns, says Matthew Miller, the communications director of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, "is energy prices. As the Republicans call for more drilling, our candidates respond by talking about their Republican opponents taking money from oil companies and supporting tax breaks for big oil. Where there's no incumbent to run against, they are calling for a crackdown on oil speculators."

"All our candidates showcase alternative energy," Miller continues. "Over the past two months [July and August] this has been the overwhelming issue." Iraq is still an issue, he adds, as is health care, "but energy is front and center."

In a sense, the Democrats are backing into a macroeconomic strategy. In their races across the country, and at their Denver convention as well, alternative energy and green jobs have become the party's new mantra. It's an easy mantra for Democrats to adopt, because unlike trade, which has historically been the source of many an intraparty rift, green jobs is a banner under which both labor and environmentalists, working-class and upper-middle-class Democrats, can march.

It also offers a sharp point of contrast with the Republicans: "Green jobs" is the Democrats' response to the preference of American finance and industry to invest abroad in search of cheap labor. It is their internal investment strategy, their long-term stimulus package, at a time when the Republicans have none: The GOP continues to trust the market to revive the American economy, even though it is market forces that have propelled our corporate sector to offshore its investments.

But Democrats are not stressing this contrast, at least not yet, in part because they must grapple with the problem of advocating a program that can be labeled "big government" by their opponents. Nor is theirs quite the full-throated populism of the late 19th century, which, for instance, went after bankers with hammer and tongs. The class composition of their own party--which is now the party of professionals as well as the unionized working class--precludes such an attack.

Nonetheless, Democrats could treat green jobs as far more of a battle cry than they are currently. They have a plausible, if still somewhat vague, strategy for rebuilding the economy. But Republicans can talk about their support for new energy sources, too, and unless Democrats press the debate--saying they're willing to invest major resources in these projects while Republicans aren't--the contrast is likely to be blurred.

For now, most Democrats are content to limit their talking points to attacking their Republican opponents' obeisance to Big Energy. In the Kansas City suburbs, Barnes has attacked Graves for taking a Political Action Committee contribution from Exxon-Mobil a couple of weeks before he voted against a measure that would strip oil companies of tax breaks and fund more solar and wind power. Graves' vote, says Barnes' press secretary, Steve Glorioso, "is our poster child."

Even when they turn their attention from oil and green jobs, Democratic candidates are campaigning on restoring fairness to the economy. In North Carolina, where State Senator Kay Hagan has pulled to within a few points of incumbent Elizabeth Dole, Hagan begins one of her commercials by telling viewers, "We need to level the playing field for families around here," and contrasts the lot of local families whose jobs get "shipped overseas" to that of wealthy oil executives. (Anti?big oil meets anti?free trade, a heavily trafficked Democratic intersection.)

Not every Democrat, of course, is tacking on a populist course. In the northeastern Colorado district of Republican Marilyn Musgrave, which Bush carried by 57 percent and 58 percent in the last two presidential elections, Democrat Betsy Markey, an aide to Sen. Ken Salazar, is running a classic Blue Dog fiscal responsibility campaign. Musgrave, a prominent crusader against gay marriage who won re-election two years ago with just 46 percent of the vote--the lowest percentage of any member of Congress--has toned down her cultural jihad this year but spent late August touring the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to contrast her pro-drilling stance with Markey's.

But Markey, in fact, is a longtime supporter of coastal drilling and would support ANWR drilling as well if she believed it would yield enough oil and gas to make a difference. The issue on which Markey does beat up the Republican is balanced budgets. Her campaign's message, says her communications director, Betsy Marter, is that, "for most of [Musgrove's] time in Congress, the federal government grew." Markey opposes continuing oil-company tax breaks, but that's just one plank in her 10-point plan to reduce government spending. (Other planks include reducing government travel expenses and ending earmarks.) Markey's green-eyeshade approach is clearly the exception in this year's field, though.

And what has become of Iraq--the issue that dominated the political landscape in 2007, when most of the current Democratic candidates made their decisions to run? Perhaps no one parlayed that issue more effectively than Darcy Burner, the Microsoft executive who narrowly failed to unseat Congressman Dave Reichert, a Republican, in a suburban Seattle district in 2006 and is now an even-money bet to oust him this November. Earlier this year, Burner authored a detailed and lengthy position paper calling for a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and persuaded several dozen other Democratic congressional candidates to sign on. Burner's initiative won her national attention and widespread support among the netroots.

And today? "Iraq is still a bigger issue in this part of the country" than in some others, says Sandeep Kaushik, Burner's communications director, "but it's a bit on the back burner now." In a district that runs from the Microsoft campus on its northern border to the Boeing plant on the southern, energy and food prices--and a woman's right to choose, something that Reichert opposes--loom as the largest issues. The downside of globalization in this export-oriented district isn't job loss but product safety: Burner's ads highlight the safety checks her campaign performed on toys imported from China. If Burner prevails this November, it won't be on her original signature issue.

Indeed, the typical Democratic response to the Iraq War is that of Mayor Barnes of Kansas City. "Iraq was an issue when the mayor got into the race in May of last year," says Barnes' press secretary, Steve Glorioso. "But it's evolved into an economic issue. We estimate the cost of the war is $1 billion to the 6th district. We talk about its enormous cost to the country."

It's all dollars and cents--and how to increase ordinary families' share thereof--on the Democrats' campaign trail this year. William Jennings Bryan would feel right at home. tap

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