Economic class is the taboo subject in American politics, to the point where the word "class" itself has been made into something of an epithet by politicians deriding opponents for supposedly waging "class warfare." Of course, most often, those deriding "class warfare" are the corporate elite, Washington insiders and their Punditburo spokespeople within the major media institutions - that is, the six and seven-figure-salaried upper class that is waging a vicious class war on the rest of us. At a time of increasing economic inequality and decreasing social-class mobility in America, these people will do anything to avoid class taking center stage in American politics. But as I show in my new nationally syndicated newspaper column today, class is forcing its way into the 2008 presidential contest - and that's a good thing.
"Ask corporate lobbyists which presidential contender is most feared by their clients and the answer is almost always the same -- Democrat John Edwards...Edwards' tone and language on the campaign trail have increased business antipathy toward him. His stump speeches are peppered with attacks on "corporate greed" and warnings of "the destruction of the middle class.'...But this year Edwards is not alone. Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, sometimes also rails against corporate power and influence, tapping a populist current that lies just below the surface of U.S. politics."
On the Democratic side, Edwards class-based campaign has pushed candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to lately vent more populist themes (though Obama's underlying message remains class-averse). That stands in contrast to the Republican side, where the rest of the field against Huckabee is digging in promoting more Bush-style upper-class warfare.
Reuters notes just how courageous and groundbreaking class-based politics really is. "Open attacks on the business elite are seldom heard from mainstream White House candidates in America," the news service reports, "despite skyrocketing CEO pay, rising income inequality, and a torrent of scandals in corporate boardrooms and on Wall Street."
This reality exists because such full-throated populist politics is almost impossible in a campaign system that typically rewards candidates with the most money. It's difficult to indict corporate greed and the elite's war on the middle class, and then convince those same corporations and that same moneyed elite to contribute to your campaign. So, as I've said before, the fact that both Edwards and Huckabee are even competing for their parties' respective nomination in spite of such Establishment anger and financial disadvantage that comes with populism shows just how powerful their message is.
Some will cite Edwards' trailing his competitors as proof that his message isn't working. That's just silly. He's trailing for two reasons: 1) He's being grossly outspent by two corporate-funded candidates and 2) His opponents are starting to co-opt his message in an attempt to blur the distinctions between themselves and him. We have to look no further than Clinton's New Hampshire victory speech to see what I'm talking about. She is the top recipient of health industry campaign cash - a person who has publicly defended lobbyist influence in Washington. And yet, with a straight face, she is berating "the drug companies [and] health insurance companies." Similarly, even though he is the top recipient of Wall Street campaign cash, Obama has taken to railing on lobbyists and Big Money. If you don't think that's the result of Edwards' influence in this race, then I have some real estate to sell you...
Huckabee continues to lead the pack in many states - and it is because of rhetoric like this from his latest ad in Michigan:
Notice how he leads off and concludes the ad talking specifically about class. It invokes the same kind of mental imagery and class populism as this 2006 ad from Ohio's Democratic Senate candidate Sherrod Brown - but it is from a Republican. From a tactical standpoint, the ad is brilliant. With no real Democratic primary in Michigan thanks to the brouhaha over scheduling, and with the contested Republican primary in Michigan open to all voters (independent, Dems and Republicans), Huckabee is making a play for Democrats to come vote for him in the GOP race, during a primary in which Democrats have little incentive to vote in their own.
But more important than the tactical brilliance is the absolutely amazing message - one that should be exciting for those of us who, regardless of party, want to see real change in this country's political debate. This is a populist campaign like we've never seen from a Republican.
As I say in the column, many of the proposals underneath his class rhetoric are punishingly regressive. However, I maintain that his influence in this race in helping make economic class a major issue is critically important. And the increasing anger you see directed at him from the likes of the George Wills, Joe Kleins and corporate front groups says something very good about his campaign: It says he's scaring precisely the right people.
Go read the whole column here. And, if you are interested, you can go here and here to listen to my discussion of the column with Jay Marvin on Denver's AM 760 this morning. If you'd like to see my column regularly in your local paper, use this directory to find the contact info for your local editorial page editors. Get get in touch with them and point them to my Creators Syndicate site.