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IF HUEY Long, the former governor of Louisiana, were alive today, he would be seething. He would be fuming, livid and downright hip-hopping mad.
And the American people would be mad, too.
"Why, those Leona Helmsleys and Donald Trumps and Neil Bushes--they think they can just throw their million around and not pay any taxes," he would say.
"Those rascals in Washington, they think they can abuse the public trust and use their offices for personal gain instead of the public good."
Huey wouldn't stand for it.
Huey wouldn't let the President and Congress get away with letting the government screech to a halt because they can't get serious about budget reform. He wouldn't let the budget pass without a tax increase for the wealthy. Huey would demand a greater redistribution of wealth; Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-III.) would get his budget plan passed immediately if Huey were still around.
We need another Huey Long today.
GOVERNOR of Louisiana from 1928-1932, and U.S. Senator from 1932 until his death in 1935, Huey P. Long was one of America's great advocates for the average citizen. On a local and national level, he railed against corrupt big-business interests, monopolists and financiers. Huey recognized that the concentration of wealth in the hands of the Morgans and Rockefellers resulted in excessive power and influence for these families.
His "Share Our Wealth" plan struck a respondent chord among millions of Americans who despaired of finding work during the Depression. The plan placed a cap on personal fortunes and limited personal income to $1 million per year. Anything over that would be taxed at a rate of 100 percent.
Sounding on themes of economic inequality on the radio and in his own newspaper, Long tapped a deep well of resentment in the American people and gained a national following. A secret opinion poll taken by the Democratic National Committee in the spring of 1935 predicted that Huey Long would gain 11 percent of the vote if he were to run in the 1936 Presidential election.
ADMITTEDLY, Huey wasn't strong on sophisticated economic theory. But he had the right idea--using progressive taxation to ensure a basic standard of living for the poor and powerless (an idea that has since fallen into undeserved disrepute). We need the Louisiana governor to help us regain a moral perspective on the budget crisis.
The only reason President Bush can stare straight at the TV cameras and say, "Read my hips," is that there is no strong leader to galvanize public support for an equitable budget resolution.
Huey Long would be that leader.
Long's redistributionary rhetoric, of course, is much more radical than anything you hear in Washington these days. Proposals for a 10 percent surtax on people with incomes of over $1 million (currently in Rostenkowski's budget plan) or a 50 percent marginal tax on unsaved income over $100,000 are more politically viable (not to mention economically feasible) than Long's ideas.
When the budget options are a large tax increase on the wealthy, a slight increase and no increase at all, the slight increase--as proposed by the House Democrats--becomes a logical compromise. Long's extremism would be perfect for supporters of the Rostenkowski plan.
Long had a similar effect on policy during the New Deal. According to scholars such as Alan Brinkley, Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Second New Deal" in 1935 was partly the result of growing pressure from the left, including the growing popularity of Huey Long. Described as a "turn to the left," this series of legislative actions included such landmark bills as the "Soak the Rich" tax bill and the Social Security Act.
TO DEPART from the Huey Long fantasy for a moment, one might expect that some contemporary leader would have taken up Long's populist banner already, especially considering growing popular resentment of the widening rich-poor gap and the legacy of the "Reagan revolution."
One might expect such a leader to step forward in this time of crisis. Sadly, no one has. While Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) continues to assert himself on the right, no strong leader on the left has cracked the whip on the White House and Congress.
It could be that Congressional Democrats have simply lost touch with their roots as the party of the working class; indeed, the Democrats currently in Congress are about as rich as the Republicans. Or perhaps the leaders are out there, but they just won't come out to play for fear of accusations of "class warfare," a Republican buzzword that--in Republican usage--can be applied to taxing the rich but not to cutting Medicare.
A long-time champion of the economically and racially oppressed, Jesse Jackson would seem the ideal candidate for the populist leader of the left. But Jackson has been conspicuously quiet on the budget negotiations, in sharp contrast to his front-and-center position on most issues (such as the Persian Gulf).
On the other side of the political spectrum, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke made a strong showing in his Louisiana Senate race by tapping the same disaffected voters to whom Long appealed. But Duke, unlike Long, insisted on grafting racism onto legitimate economic grievances.
Then there is New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a possible presidential candidate in 1992. In his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention, he came closer than anyone since to outlining a consistent philosophy for the Democrats. Cuomo described America as a family a family that grieves and lends help when one of its members is sick or in trouble.
Right now, though, Cuomo is busy with his re-election bid and seems unwilling to risk alienating New York voters by focusing on national issues while running for state office. Even before his campaign, Cuomo was always careful not to say too much about national affairs, lest he sound too much like a possible presidential candidate or something.
WHICH brings us back to Huey Long. If Huey Long were here, he wouldn't worry about what people thought of his ambitions. He'd look at the pathetic circus of budget negotiations and he would express the frustration of the American people. He would filibuster on the Senate floor, appear on every television talk show possible and hold press conferences denouncing everyone in Washington whenever he got the opportunity.
And the American people would be behind him. At Huey's behest, hundreds of thousands of people would write letters to their representatives in Congress and flood Congressional offices with angry phone calls. Congress would be forced to pass a reasonable budget just to calm everybody down.
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