The Democrats turn left.

The Democrats turn left.

The Democrats turn left.

Politics and policy.
May 27 2003 5:36 PM

Progressive Tacks

The Democrats turn left.

Gephardt, a working man's lobbyist
Gephardt, a working man's lobbyist

Last week, seven Democratic presidential candidates addressed a forum convened by EMILY's List, an organization that raises money for pro-choice, Democratic women candidates. Compared to previous debates before Democratic audiences, this event was notable for signs that the candidates are growing increasingly comfortable with liberal themes. Here are a few of those signs.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1) The return of anti-war politics. After the American victory in Iraq, the anti-war candidates—Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton—muffled their criticisms of the war. As looting spread and U.S. forces failed to find weapons of mass destruction, Kucinich, Braun, and Sharpton resumed complaining, but Dean—the only one of the four with a serious chance of winning the nomination—kept his head down. The recent bombings in Saudi Arabia seem to have erased his fear. At the outset of his speech, he called the ouster of Saddam Hussein

a war, which I'm the only major candidate who did not support, which we have now no way to pay for. We are now paying for what we did in Iraq, because when you see al-Qaida coming back, that is the price of taking your eye off the ball and spending our resources beating up on a tin-horn dictator who, as evil as he was, was no threat to the United States. And we are now being paid back, because al-Qaida is reconstituted, [and] we're not spending the money that we spent in Iraq instead on buying back the plutonium stocks in Russia that really are a threat to the United States if those should get into the hands of terrorists.

I don't know whether this position is a net loser for Dean. But obviously it's no longer too lethal to campaign on. The glory of conquest is receding fast. Even if we eventually dig up a barrel of nerve gas, further chaos in Iraq and al-Qaida bombings elsewhere are likely. Opposition to the war, coupled with vigilance against terrorists, is looking more politically viable all the time.

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2) The return of Bill Clinton. Last year, Joe Lieberman was the only prospective presidential candidate willing to praise Clinton by name. Now others are joining in. At this forum, Dick Gephardt credited "the first Clinton budget" for "the best economy we've had in 50 years." Gephardt also spoke of youth programs for which "Bill Clinton and I" worked. But the big surprise came when John Kerry declared, "It was President Clinton and the Democrats who had the courage to expend their political capital" to pass Clinton's economic program. Kerry added, "President Clinton said a month or two ago that the Democrats lost in 2002 because we were voiceless, and we were. … We saw it proven that strong and wrong, as he said, can beat weak and right." Kerry is as calculating as anyone in the race. If he thinks the Clinton stigma is over, the Clinton stigma is over.

3) The Edwards-Gephardt populist war. Last year, I called Edwards a younger, gentiler Lieberman. This year, Edwards has run more as a younger Gephardt. In last month's South Carolina debate, he accused Gephardt of "Reaganomics" and "taking almost a trillion dollars out of the pocket of working Americans" to give "to the biggest corporations." In this forum, Gephardt reciprocated by stealing two of Edwards' best lines. "Every day that I've been in the House of Representatives, I've simply tried to represent people like my [working-class] parents," said Gephardt. "I'd try to represent the interests of the people that don't have a lobbyist."

Edwards continues to weave new issues into his own populist stump speech. He told the EMILY's List audience, "Our values are the values of the American people. George Bush and the Republicans, they honor wealth. We honor the hard work that creates wealth. They believe in hoarding what they already have. We believe in providing opportunity to absolutely everybody." I've seen other candidates speak for workers and against capitalist predation, but Edwards is trying to do something more ambitious: to reclaim the virtues of capitalism. Note his emphasis, in this speech and in the previous AFSCME forum, on "values," "honor," and "creating" rather than restraining wealth.

Here, as in the AFSCME forum, Edwards floated the idea of a "workers' and shareholders' bill of rights." He also proposed to "democratize" corporate governance for shareholders. He framed Bush's policies on executive privilege and civil liberties not as unconstitutional, but—for greater political effect—as elitist: "We got this small group of insiders that are running our country. They're looking down on all the rest of us. You know, they tell us what they think we need to know when they think we need to know it." Dean may be the heir to Clinton's fine grasp of policy, but it's starting to look as though Edwards is the heir to Clinton's genius for politics.

4) Dean and the counterculture. It's one thing for Dean to oppose the Iraq war while supporting the use of force against terrorists. It's another thing to convey distrust of the military alongside other icons of American culture. Here's how Dean explained to EMILY's List his objections to Bush's 2001 education bill:

It says that every school has to certify there's constitutionally protected school prayer in your local public school. It says the Boy Scouts have to be able to meet in every school building in this country. It says that the names of rising juniors and seniors go to the higher education establishment and the military. That is law, supported by us as well as the Republicans. If people can't tell the difference between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, why wouldn't they vote for the Republican Party? We have got to stop that kind of thing.

Prayer, the Boy Scouts, and the military. That's way too much to take on at one time, even if you're as clever and confident as Howard Dean. "I don't pay attention to polls, because this campaign is not just about winning; this campaign is about educating and moving America," Dean told the crowd. "If you stand up for the things we believe in, people start to come to you." Maybe so, but a lot of those people will be carrying baseball bats.