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Beware Shrum Populism

By Brian M. Goldsmith

In 1988, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis asked voters whether they wanted “a president who fights for the privileged few, or a president who fights for you.” In 2000, Al Gore ’69 argued that while Republicans fought for “big HMOs, big oil [and] the big insurance companies,” he was “fighting for the people.” And this year, Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., very originally declared that his “campaign is about fighting big oil, fighting big HMOs and insurance companies and special interests.”

The pattern has not been missed: labeling the liberals’ case against President Bush, editorial writers and commentators from across the punditocracy have stamped the epithet “populist” across the forehead of nearly every Democratic candidate. In the Washington Post last month, David S. Broder called former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s fundraising appeals “internet-based populism.” In The New York Times the same day, Robin Toner mused about whether Americans can accept a “populist uprising” at a time of economic recovery. On CNN, Robert Novak questioned what he called the “us-versus-them, populist rhetoric” of Sen. John R. Edwards, D-N.C. But since Che Guevara isn’t on the ballot and the most radical redistribution proposed is a return to Bill Clinton’s tax code, incisive readers might wonder: Where is the populism?

At least as the commentators define it, it is in the tone, in the constantly repeated conviction that to give to us (the aggrieved voters), one must take from them (the faceless, selfish plutocrats). To varying degrees, Kerry, Edwards, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and nearly every other significant Democrat have condemned Bush around that theme: that he is captive to “big” corporate interests in Washington, stacking the decks against ordinary Americans, who need a “fighter” to beat up the bad guys.

Coincidentally, they who share a message also share a political consultant, and his name is Robert M. Shrum. He is the most powerful, most influential voice inside Democratic politics—and with the (big) exception of Clinton’s presidential campaigns, has almost exclusively written the national Democratic script for two decades.

Shrum carries a colorful political history: A Harvard Law School graduate, he was principal speechwriter to former South Dakota Sen. George S. McGovern in his 1972 presidential run. Fired after 10 days on the only successful presidential campaign for which he has ever worked (Jimmy Carter’s in 1976), Shrum trashed the candidate on his way out. After finding a permanent home as the top wordsmith for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, D-Mass., Shrum opened a wildly lucrative political consulting shop noted more for its consistency than its batting average.

A Shrum campaign occasionally offers Kennedy-esque imagery (Kerry’s “we need to go to the moon here on Earth”), often involves unsubtle negativity (Gore’s 2000 ads featuring pollution almost emanating from Bush’s head), but always—always—delivers some variant of the “fighter” message. Call it repetitive, brilliant, leftist or anything else—but realize that Shrum’s narrative has never won a presidential election. This is not to say that populism is a mistake; Shrum populism is a mistake.

Shrum Populism is dramatically different from the populism that wins. Yes, Jimmy Carter ran against “entrenched Washington insiders,” Ronald Reagan used non-existent “welfare queens” to symbolize government excess and Bill Clinton attacked “brain-dead politicians.” But that wasn’t who they were. They were Common-Man Populists—Carter on his peanut farm, Reagan at his Santa Barbara ranch, Clinton from small-town Arkansas. They were guys you would enjoy inviting over for a beer, and who seemed to respect middle class, middle-American moms and dads, working hard and wanting the best for their country.

Chris Matthews, the MSNBC commentator, likes to say that the Americans vote for the presidential candidate with “the sun on his face.” The Common-Man Populists are optimists. Carter, Reagan, Clinton—they understood something that Shrum never will: Americans are aspirational, not punitive. To defeat the last Republican president running for re-election, Bill Clinton said, “All of us—we need each other. When George Bush fails to invest in our people, what he doesn’t understand is that, in America, we don’t have a person to waste.”

When Shrum advises his candidates to attack the top 1 percent, he neglects that (according to USA Today’s polls) 20 percent of Americans believe that they’re already among the wealthiest 1 percent, and 50 percent believe they will reach the highest 1 percent in their lifetimes. When Shrum advises his candidates to condemn corporations, he ignores that (according to the Survey of Consumer Finances) nearly half of all Americans own some form of stock—and want American companies to succeed. And when Shrum advises his candidates to call President Bush a tool of selfish special interests, he lets the president too far off the hook. Bush is responsible for foreign policy lies, for the biggest deficits ever, for millions of jobs lost—his special interest supporters aren’t.

Americans are inclusive and interdependent, positive and optimistic. John F. Kennedy ’40 (a Crimson editor) beats Richard M. Nixon. Equal opportunity beats targeted resentment. And the candidate with the sun on his face will beat the candidate with Bob Shrum in his ear.

Brian M. Goldsmith ’05 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His weekly Institute of Politics roundtable on The Week in Politics starts at 7:30 p.m. tonight.

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