Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Economic Populism: A Winner in 2010?

As I suspected would be the case, Democrats intend to take on the conservative wing of the Supreme Court and in so doing make it into an election year issue. In a year where successful narratives for the party in power are few and where the prevailing conventional wisdom seems to be one of limiting inevitable GOP gains, I am pleased to see this degree of push back, though I note by no means will it alone be sufficient to secure majority status for both the House and Senate. It is a good start, but it cannot be the end all, be all. When people are hurting for jobs, income, and peace of mind, the existence of an activist Supreme Court is less important and less pressing.

The only problem I see with this strategy is that it doesn't necessarily channel voter frustration the way that, for example, anger at former President Bush did back in 2008. A desire to take on the Supreme Court for its abuses of power is, at least now, a minor priority, and the people who do feel sufficiently outraged are self-identified Progressives or Democrats. If the intent is purely to unify the base and revitalize party loyalists, then I can understand the logic. But as it stands now, many independents and self-identified conservatives of any leaning unfortunately often find nothing especially objectionable about recent SCOTUS decisions. They don't consider it a particularly pertinent bread and butter issue that relates directly to their own lives. Everyone votes based, to some degree or another, on their own self-interest, but this degree of apathy is due, in part, to the fact that the topic has never really been adequately framed in terms that resonate well with the electorate.

As President Barack Obama mulls possible replacements for retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, the administration and congressional aides are gravitating toward a strategy that goes beyond the goals of a run-of-the-mill confirmation fight – to define a corporations-vs.-the-common-man battle between Democrats and the high court.

Taking a populist stance on this matter does make sense, but thus far economic populism has been underused by Democrats. The position stated above has been weakly rendered up until now and there has been no unified voice to advance it. If Democrats wish to come out strongly against unpopular decisions like Citizens United v. FEC then it certainly would be interesting to see the effort played with the American people and with the mainstream media. The Obama Administration has, much to the frustration of many, always taken care to hedge its bets regarding passionate denunciations of offending parties, particularly regarding financial matters--one day forceful populism, the next day conciliatory language. Throwing down the gauntlet means that the gauntlet comes down and stays down. Half-measures are perceived by most as as weak, not politically shrewd.

Vermont Senator Patrick J. Leahy summarizes the proposed strategy,

“But I think what people are going to do is say, ‘Do you share our concern about the fact that the court always seems to side with the big corporate interests against the average American?’” he added. “I think there’s going to be more of the public realizing they really do have a stake in who’s on the Supreme Court.”

Nothing could be a more prototypical Democratic stance than this. The entire identity of the Party itself is based upon the notion that it is the champion for the hard-working everyman or everywoman. Still, I recognize that the challenges which face us at this moment in time are daunting and without historical precedent. Health Care Reform did nearly collapse before eventual passage and many other proposed reform measures are still under debate, but if Harry Truman were President now, Economic Populism above everything else would have been hammered home over and over and over again. My hope is that Democratic leaders as well as the rank-and-file will understand that due to our current electoral climate, almost everything signed into law or pushed by the Democratic caucus is automatically loved by half the country and reviled by the other half. I do not speak out of ignorance on this subject, since poll after poll has backed up my assertion.

If, however, a strongly Populist denunciation of the excesses and abuses of corporations, the elite, and the wealthy were adopted and, won favor among a wide cross-section of the voting public, then it would be very beneficial indeed, not just for preserving seats but also in filling the coffers. The American people are mad as hell right now and their favorite punching bags are, alternately, big business and Washington, DC. Democrats in power have yet to close ranks, deflect, and redirect the entirely justified anger, frustration, and feelings of hopelessness that have been present in the lives of so many Americans for so many months. A common enemy has always been a source of unity throughout history, and despite the fact that as a tactical maneuver it might not speak to the best of humanity, it has won many elections prior to now.

President Obama may seek to not wish to burn any more bridges than he has to, but in this situation, it is control over his legislative agenda which he is fighting to preserve and, in this context, with it the ability to fill subsequent Supreme Court openings beyond Justice Stevens, should they occur during this time in office. It may never be too soon for a President in his or her first term to start preparing for the exhausting race to win a second, especially in these times where the contest starts fully two years before even the first vote is cast. Obama may soon have no other choice than to risk making enemies with big business. Though in some ways November is still a long way away, establishing a properly persuasive framework and selling it to the American people by way of skillful repetition must be set in stone months beforehand. Washington, DC, is full of the graves of candidates whose lack of preparation and message control contributed directly to their defeat.

Right now, Democrats are collectively scattered and I have no doubt that if the Republican Party was now coalesced around its own Barack Obama, circa 2008, then the GOP would hold commanding leads in just about every contest. One of the lessons learned about 2008 is that even a party with a long history of dysfunction and weak leadership will eventually find its savior, though there is absolutely no guarantee that he or she will work magic beyond a relatively short period of time. Democrats must take the initiative and seize the momentum, else it find itself once again in the minority---if not this year, certainly by 2012 if conditions do not turn around. Though we are often beholden to depressingly similar patterns and trends, there is no law which says that they must always be proven true. We can shape our fate if we so choose. We do not have to be held prisoner by it.

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