POLITICS
05/22/2014 08:12 pm ET Updated May 23, 2014

A Day With The New Populists

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- Populism is fashionable in Washington these days.

That's for good reason. Strong currents of dissatisfaction with the nation's capital, with government, and with big business are sweeping through the country.

Populists of different political stripes gathered at two forums Thursday, separated by a few miles. One group talked of conservatives moving toward a more populist agenda, of a concern for middle class and lower-income voters that they've lacked. The other group, a liberal gathering, referred to themselves as "new populists."

The first event was at the American Enterprise Institute, a longstanding conservative think, for a forum on "Solutions for the Middle Class." Just before noon, I left AEI's downtown offices, across the street from the National Geographic Building, and headed for the Washington Court Hotel, near the Capitol, to hear Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speak at a "New Populism" conference hosted by the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal advocacy group organized in the 1990s to push back against the Democratic Party's drift to the middle under President Bill Clinton.

It was an interesting contrast. But the similarities in rhetoric were surprising. The two groups diverge, of course, in their ideas for how to help poor and middle class people rise. But to some degree they're both trying to solve the same problem: How to help the little guy in an age when the system seems rigged against him.

9:28 a.m. -- AEI President Arthur Brooks argues, "The reason for free enterprise is not for the rich. The reason for free enterprise is the poor." Brooks is moderating a panel with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). He launches into a complaint about the cost of licensing for someone to get their real estate license, and the cost imposed by government regulators for women to get a license for braiding hair. He rails against the barriers to making money placed in the way of lower-income people.

The conversation moves on to the minimum wage. Scott, the first black U.S. senator from the South since 1881, says the impact of minimum wage requirements on military bases in South Carolina has been "devastating," citing the closure of McDonald's and Subway chains on the bases.

Lee says that there are ways to help people rise from lower incomes, but that the way to do it is to take on "crony capitalism" and get rid of special favors for big business. He mentions two fights currently splitting the GOP. Some conservatives are trying to get rid of the Export-Import Bank, and recently fought against reauthorization for the Overseas Private Investment Corp. Democrats and establishment Republicans largely favor both, but a growing number of conservatives see them as corporate welfare.

9:39 a.m. - A woman in the audience asks a question about helping workers with disabilities. Cantor gives a noncommittal answer: "I look forward to looking at that further," he says. Scott, meanwhile, tells the story of a young woman whose parents found a school that could help her overcome learning disabilities when she was in elementary school. He uses this as an argument for greater school choice. He then points out the example of Walgreens, which has a warehouse in South Carolina, where 40 percent of its employees have special needs. It's the company's most productive warehouse, he says. His point? People should be viewed as having potential to be productive and healthy individuals, and not necessarily as charity cases.

9:52 a.m. -– Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walks in to the 12th floor events room at AEI, trailed by a small entourage. He is wearing a dark suit and a purple and blue tie, and sits in a chair against the wall, near the stage. Brooks is wrapping up the panel.

"Each one of us ... are angry enough to fight for better policy, but that's not the question," Brooks says. "The question is whether we have enough love in our hearts for every American to fight for better policy." The crowd applauds, and Cantor makes his way toward McConnell, shakes his hand, leans in and shares a brief word with the Republican Senate leader, and smiles. Lee comes behind, and offers a much briefer handshake and smile.

Brooks then introduces McConnell. "He has won a big primary victory and I'm sure he's pleased about that," Brooks says. McConnell's expression does not change, and he stares straight ahead. But when McConnell steps to the microphone, he cracks a joke about the primary. "Well, I'm happy to be here, especially, especially under the present circumstances," he says drily, with a slight smile. "If things had turned out differently in Kentucky Tuesday, this could have been a fairly awkward presentation." The audience breaks up in laughter.

McConnell praises what he calls "reform conservatism," which he describes as "a good initial answer to the question of how government can be used to help, help, not hurt, working Americans across the country, whose wages have remained stubbornly flat throughout the Obama era, even as the cost of everything from college tuition to health care continues to rise.

"Many of these Americans have come to feel that government is working against them, not for them, and reform conservatism is animated in large part by a desire to prove that at least one party in Washington remains determined to change that," McConnell says.

McConnell says the idea that the GOP is a party of the rich is "a cheap and dishonest caricature," but then acknowledges that Republicans are partly to blame for this impression. "It must also be admitted that in our rush to defend the American entrepreneur from daily depredations of an administration that seems to view any profit-making enterprise with deep suspicion, they have often lost sight of the fact that our average voter is not John Galt," McConnell says, referring to the protagonist from Ayn Rand's book, Atlas Shrugged.

"For most Americans whose daily concerns revolve around aging parents, long commutes, shrinking budgets, and obscenely high tuition bills, these hymns to entrepreneurialism are, as a practical matter, largely irrelevant, and the audience for them is probably a lot smaller than we think," McConnell says. "So I do think we do well as a party to get down to the basics ... let's talk less of job creators and more talk of job earners."

10:07 a.m. -- McConnell begins a series of broadsides against Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for centralizing power in the Senate, getting rid of the filibuster in some cases, and not allowing more debate or amendments to legislation.

"Senator Reid has done tremendous damage to the Senate, tremendous damage to the Senate by arrogating to himself powers that have traditionally been reserved for committees and individual members," he says.

McConnell vows to restore the filibuster and uphold its place in the Senate if the GOP retakes the Senate this fall.

10:26 a.m. -- McConnell finishes and quickly exits the room. The next panel is moderated by National Review's former Washington editor, Kate O'Beirne, and features Ramesh Ponnoru of Bloomberg View, Ross Douthat of The New York Times, Yuval Levin of National Affairs, Reihan Salam of the YG Network, and Pete Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Wehner, a former senior White House adviser to President George W. Bush, begins the session by laying out polling numbers about how many middle-class Americans think the GOP is out to help the rich, and not those with lower incomes.

Levin argues that conservative philosophy is better suited for an era when society is increasingly bottom-up, rather than top-down.

"America is in the midst of a transition from a way of life that's built around large consolidated, centralized institutions -- big government, big business, big labor, big media, big universities, big cultural institutions -- to a way of life that is built around smaller, more dispersed, diverse institutions and communities, where Americans have a huge array of choices in every part of life and they get to define their options and enable improvements in the choices they make," Levin argues. "That's happening everywhere except in government, and to me, that means the government we have and the approach to government is becoming less and les useful to society."

"The left today is stuck defending broken systems," he argues.

Levin says government should facilitate change and innovation and not try to centrally plan solutions to societal problems.

The pace of the panel goes up a few notches when Salam speaks. He talks a mile a minute. He is loud, and he is intense. He talks about how higher education is costing immigrant parents like his more and more money, and that without any accountability for the institutions, this is weighing Americans down with debt while delivering less value.

"It's not just about giving more money. It's about rethinking these institutions," he says.

11:12 a.m. -- The panel is taking questions. The AEI staffers have vice grips on the mic. They do not relinquish control to audience members under any circumstances.

Levin is again talking in sweeping terms about what conservatism stands for. "The alternative to progressivism is not radical individualism," he says. It is, rather, society. "Society consists of the things we do together, one of which is government, but by no means the most important one or the most central one, or the one that serves us best," Levin says.

Ponnoru agrees. "It's a much better answer than conservatives are often inclined to give, just to respond to collectivism with the kind of rhetoric of commercial individualism," he says of Levin's comments. "That's part of what's wrong with the over emphasis on entrepreneurship that we see, that sometimes tipped all the way over into Randianism, with an implicit message: 'We'll cut your taxes and you can solve your own problems,' as opposed to, 'We'll help communities thrive, we'll reform institutions so they are supporting you instead of trying to direct your life.' We can't cede the entire field of community over to the left."

11:50 a.m. -- The ballroom at the Washington Court hotel is packed. It has a higher ceiling than the AEI events room. The audience is surprisingly similar to that at AEI, maybe even a good bit older, if a bit more racially diverse.

11:58 a.m. -- While a panel that incudes former Obama adviser Jared Bernstein finishes, Warren shows up at the front of the room to the side of the stage, wearing a big grin and a red jacket. She remains standing as former aide Damon Silvers introduces her as "the people's champion, the tribune of the 99 percent."

As Warren takes the stage, the sun is shining brightly through a skylight directly onto the rostrum where she is speaking, illuminating her like a natural spotlight. She mentions her new book. "Books are part of how I fight," she says.

Warren tells the story of her fight to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and says big banks spent $1 million a day lobbying Congress to try to stop it. She praises the power of popular support that she says helped win that battle.

But she also implicitly hits former President Clinton for helping create the problem of "too big to fail" financial institutions, and explicitly raps President Barack Obama for not doing more to fix the problem.

The effect of repealing Glass-Steagall in 1999, passed by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed by Clinton, was "anything goes," Warren says.

She says "too big to fail" is more of a problem now than it was before the 2008 financial crisis, citing statistics that the six biggest banks are 38 percent bigger now than they were in 2008. She had hoped for accountability on Wall Street in exchange for the bailout money, she says, but "what we got, and I want to be clear this is under both administrations, was nothing, nothing and nothing, out of that."

"Wall Street has been rebuilt," she says. "But the rest of the economy not so much."

"The Treasury Department under both administrations shoveled money out on a no-strings-attached basis," she says, and mentions, to some horror in the room, that she is co-sponsoring a bill with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to restore key elements of Glass-Steagall.

She also rails against free trade agreements as venues for corporations to make secret deals with the government to get preferential treatment.

Near the end of her remarks, Warren characterizes conservatism in the very way that those at the AEI conference earlier in the day were hoping to change.

"When conservatives talk about opportunity, they mean opportunities for the rich to get richer, for the powerful to get more powerful," she says. "Deep down, this is a fight over values. Conservatives and their powerful friends will continue to be guided by their age-old principle: 'I got mine. The rest of you are on your own.'

"But we're guided by principle too. It's a simple idea: We all do better when we work together and invest in our future."

The first person to stand up and ask a question of Warren encourages her to run for president, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as her running mate. "I appreciate the thought," she says. "I am not running for president."

The crowd loves Warren. She calls on them to respond to her with "a good strong amen" as she runs down a list of priorities, and the crowd obliges. She has the politicians' wave down as well, alternating arms and flashing her megawatt smile as applause washes over her.

12:29 p.m. -- Warren wraps up. The event organizers, as part of the $35 registration fee, are providing bag lunches, with Saran-wrapped sandwiches, apples and potato chips.

I go up the street to Bistro Bis and get a burger and fries for $16 instead. The maitre'd tells me that the restaurant is closed Friday because there are no reservations. Everyone is leaving Washington on Thursday, heading out of town for Memorial Day weekend.

That is, everybody who has enough money.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistranscribed McConnell's quote about the American entrepreneur to read "degradations" rather than "depredations."

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