Why the Democrats' top strategist can't elect a president.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 9 2002 2:56 PM

The Trouble With Shrum

Why the Democrats' top strategist can't elect a president.

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So, 2004: Who is Shrum's horse of choice? John Kerry presents problems. With his aristocratic mien and Massachusetts provenance, he couldn't pass for populist if he were caught driving a pickup truck with Paula Jones riding shotgun and Astroturf in the back. No, Kerry would be a cinch for Shrum's other eternal riff: the Next Kennedy. (Shrum attempted a charisma transplant for Al Checchi, the gazillionaire who ran for governor of California in 1998: There were ads featuring Checchi walking reflectively—as Bobby Kennedy once did—on the beach.)

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Al Gore is Al Gore. Richard Gephardt can deliver the populist message with conviction, but there is probably too much mayonnaise on his sandwich. Which leaves John Edwards, potentially the best of all possible Shrumian worlds: a Kennedy-esque populist of working-class heritage from the South. I don't know enough about Edwards yet to be convinced that he is, as my New Yorker colleague Nicholas Lemann recently posited, the real deal. He may well be; he certainly has great word-of-mouth.

The notion of trial lawyer as populist icon does have a  tinny resonance. Clarence Darrow certainly was one. John Edwards and cases like Erin Brockovich's do, at times, represent the people against the most virulent corporate scoundrels. But where's the "social justice" in a multimillion-dollar settlement that raises the price of goods and services—particularly of health insurance—for all the rest of us? Indeed, there is another, more colloquial expression used to describe Edwards' line of work: ambulance-chaser. Absent a clever, counterintuitive Edwardian ploy—say, he proposes the elimination of punitive damages in tort cases—the heroic potential here seems rather limited.

The notion of economics as a zero-sum game—the people gain when the powerful lose; the people gain when they don't have to compete against immigrants for work—is the mean-spirited fallacy at the heart of modern populism. This message is not only a proven loser but also the intellectual opposite of the expansive, inclusive, "rising tide" public activism that moved a generation of Americans, including Bob Shrum, to get involved in politics in the first place. The next John or Robert Kennedy may be a forlorn liberal hope and—as presented by Shrum—a threadbare cliché, but the Kennedys were, at the very least, idealists who raised the nation's spirit with inspirational words and deeds. And they never defended "the little people" for a third of the take.

Joe Klein is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton.