Tonight's Iowa caucuses might give a hint as to whether populism has any oomph as a 2008 campaign issue—at least the Wall Street Journal thinks so:
In the frantic closing days, as candidates have touted their résumés and needled their opponents, two leading contenders from each party—Democrat John Edwards and Republican Mike Huckabee—have ramped up their anticorporate, anti-Wall Street rhetoric.
Mr. Huckabee's campaign represents a new challenge to the historically business-friendly Republican Party, and so far none of his rivals have picked up his rhetoric. But Mr. Edwards is tapping into a long tradition of Democrats' receptivity to working-class appeals, and his main competitors are scrambling to echo the populism as economic anxiety has intensified among voters.
My take: All the Democrats have been talking about income inequality/stagnant wages/worker anxiety to one degree or another, though Edwards has pushed these issues the hardest. Yet all that chatter is not much different from what Walter Mondale, Mario Cuomo, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry have been saying for three decades. So it's Huckabee and his Buchananomics-with-a-human-face economic rhetoric that are the real story.
But all it is, so far, is rhetoric. Huckabee has proposed precious little—other than his FairTax—that would address middle-class concerns. This, from his website:
I believe in free trade, but it has to be fair trade. We are losing jobs because of an unlevel, unfair trading arena that has to be fixed. Behind the statistics, there are real families and real lives and real pain. I'm running for President because I don't want people who have worked loyally for a company for twenty or thirty years to walk in one morning and be handed a pink slip and be told, "I'm sorry, but everything you spent your life working for is no longer here." I believe that globalization, done right, done fairly, can be a blessing for our society. As the Industrial Revolution raised living standards by allowing ordinary people to buy mass-produced goods that previously only the rich could afford, so globalization gives all of us the equivalent of a big pay raise by letting us buy all kinds of things from clothing to computers to TVs much more inexpensively.
There's no policy there. Just "I feel your pain." But what concerns some economic conservatives is that Huckabee's rhetoric further undermines America's commitment to free trade and openness even if a President Huckabee would be highly unlikely to tear up NAFTA or pull us out of the World Trade Organization. A Huckabee-Edwards race would be a nightmare for Wall Street.
Still, ardent free traders and economic optimists like Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson would be well advised to make it clear to Main Street that they understand the anxiety. Indeed, a new WSJ poll found 68 percent of Americans "somewhat" or "very" dissatisfied with the state of the economy, and nearly 60 percent disapproved of President Bush's handling of the economy.
Yes, the economy is in year six of an expansion, wages are rising, and unemployment is low...but housing prices are falling, the dollar is sinking, oil prices are near a record high, and America faces a tough new economic competitor in rising Asia. Telling voters it's the all media's fault for underreporting the good news is not going to fly.
Compare Huckabee's rap with how Romney answered my question about worker anxiety when I chatted with him a few weeks back:
Well, clearly the subprime mortgage crisis and its spread to the overall credit market has spooked the stock market and is being widely reported, and some people have concerns. And there's no question that the media shapes a good deal of public perception, and there is nothing that sells like fright. Clearly, those things affect the national mood.
Ouch. John McCain, though, seems to have latched on to this dynamic. He recently proposed a huge expansion in unemployment and worker retraining benefits. Campaign experts usually tell their candidates to avoid specificity. Romney and Thompson, on the other hand, could push harder the idea that the best way to deal with middle-class concerns is by making the economy more competitive and boosting growth. But they need to directly tell voters, I would imagine, how their policies will help. For instance, instead of merely saying, "We should cut corporate taxes to make our companies more competitive internationally," they should perhaps also note that 70 percent of the burden of corporate taxes falls on workers. Huckabee has clearly hit upon something. Now it's up to his rivals to react.