Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Phony Populism 101

Is there anybody out there in Blogland who’s actually buying the phony populism of these presidential candidates?

Senator Hillary Clinton is the phoniest of the lot. I’m sorry, but when I hear her trashing big oil companies for gouging consumers at the pumps or dissing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), I want to puke. Who does she think she’s fooling?

New Republic editor Marty Peretz shares my reaction in his May 5 Blog entry titled “Hillary’s Fake Populism.” At one point, Peretz writes, “I’d bet the only people she dines with in New York (and she does dine, not munch) are folk who have at least $50 million bucks. And her designer pants suits are not bought at Target or, let alone, Wal-Mart, although she did serve on its board when no one on the payroll had health insurance.

Kevin Mattson, one of my favorite historians and a Connor Study Professor of contemporary history at Ohio University (who also happens to be blogging for the Guardian Unlimited), had this to say about Hillary’s pseudo-populism:

“She has attacked Obama as an elitist – a charge she's certain Republicans will wage against him in the general election and that she’s just fine using early. So, in the wake of Obama's malapropism about "bitterness", she talked about the joys of learning how to shoot guns from her father (behind a humble house, no less) and then drinking brewskies with the boys and being coaxed into shots of Crown Royal in an Indiana bar (I understand if that last drink doesn't ring populist bells in your head, but at least it was whiskey, right?). A colleague of mine said she heard a little twang entering Clinton's voice when she talked about shooting guns.”

Obviously, I’m a Barack Obama partisan, but I’m not much more convinced by his “populism.” To be certain, he has a natural rapport with the people, which comes out on the campaign trail. But when he starts rolling up his sleeves and talking with a down-home, good old boy tone, he does not seem entirely sincere. "For the last 10 days leading up to Tuesday’s primaries in Indiana and North Carolina,” reported the New York Times on May 6, “Mr. Obama’s campaign has unfolded against a choreographed backdrop of factory floors and farmsteads, dinner tables and diners. He has talked less often of the audacity of hope and more often of the anxieties of middle-class Americans, while throwing in allusions to Nascar, fatty foods and beer, and playing the occasional game of basketball.”

Obama has no other choice but to turn up the populist charm. His speech last month in San Francisco about alienated rural folk embracing guns and religion was completely ripped out of context by Clinton. She used it to her advantage to turn Obama into an elitist and herself into a folksy woman of the people. Hillary wants voters to think Obama is an egghead in the tradition of Adlai Stevenson, two-time Democratic presidential loser from the 1950s. As Obama put it, “One of the ironies of the last two or three weeks was this idea that somehow Michelle and I are elitist, pointy-headed intellectual types.”

Barb Shelly, a columnist with the Kansas City Star, offered Obama some sensible advice when she wrote, “Find a high-profile person with small-town credibility to travel with you. I'm at a loss right now to say who that would be, but that's what campaign staffs are for.”

At least Senator John McCain doesn’t feel the need to out-populist Clinton and Obama. Last month, McCain spent a week journeying through several hard-hit areas in the Midwest, South and particularly in the Appalachians. He called this trip a tour of America’s “forgotten places.” He had nothing but good things to say about the NAFTA. He extolled the virtues of stepped-up training for service sector jobs. He called for an unfettered free market economy, unburdened by regulations. His message on the tour was simple: The War on Poverty failed. People must learn to be self-reliant. Nobody is going to give you a free handout. Times are difficult right now, yes, but if you work hard, things will get better.

Working-class folks listened with mixed reactions. Some drank it in and loved every word of it, while others left shaking their heads, vowing to vote Democrat in November or stay home come Election Day.

Say what you will about McCain. At least he didn’t get all folksy. Standing on the steps of a Kentucky court house, he looked right into the audience and said, “I’m not the son of a coal miner. I wasn’t raised by a family that made its living from the land or toiled in a mill or worked in the local schools or health clinic. I was raised in the United States Navy, and after my own naval career, I became a politician. My work isn’t as hard as yours.”

Good for McCain for steering clear of pseudo-populism. Good for McCain for not feeling like he has to mispronounce nuclear like Old Dubya, or say words like “misunderestimate” or pretend to love Nascar to win votes in the hinterland. Good for McCain for refusing to water down his message to appeal to working-class voters. He may share his mentor Senator Barry Goldwater’s politics, but at least he also has Goldwater’s honesty.

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