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The Case for a Populist Challenger in the Democratic Primaries

02/18/2015 12:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015
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A raft of reasons are floated for why someone should challenge the prohibitive favorite, Hillary Clinton, in the Democratic primaries, most of them spurious. Yes, polls show Democrats want a contest, not a coronation for their presidential nomination. The press and talking heads also yearn for a contest, if only to have something to cover. But this doesn't justify a run.

Contrary to many pundits, Hillary (first name used as shorthand to distinguish her from her husband) doesn't need a primary contest to get her campaign in shape. She's already been central to three presidential campaigns, as underdog, incumbent and, disastrously, overwhelming favorite. She has every high-priced operative in the party. If she doesn't know how to put together a campaign by now, an upstart challenger won't help.

Some suggest a challenger could move Hillary to the left, as if Hillary Inc. were a bloated ocean liner needing a plucky tugboat to put it on the right path. But the Clintons are experienced pros when it comes to running more populist than they govern. Hillary found her populist pitch in 2008, when it was too late to save her. She's knee-deep in pollsters and message meisters. She won't need a challenger to teach her the lines.

There are two compelling reasons for a populist challenger to get in the Democratic primaries: a fundamental debate about the direction of the country has only just begun and must be expanded, and a growing populist movement would benefit from a populist challenge to Hillary.

The Deep Divide

This isn't conventional wisdom. Matt Yglesias argues that Clinton is the prohibitive favorite for the nomination not because of name recognition or the Clinton money machine but because no large ideological divisions separate Democrats. New Dems have embraced the social liberalism they once dreaded. Foreign policy differences are minimal. All Democrats sing from Obama's populist songbook. All favor raising the minimum wage, pay equity, investment in infrastructure, bank regulation. Crowdpac, measuring contributors, concludes there isn't much space to Hillary's left.

New York Senator Charles Schumer maintains that the "differences among Democrats are small compared to the chasm on the Republican side." Democrats, he asserts, are united on "fundamental issues," like the minimum wage, pay equity, and paying for college.

The New York Times, reporting that Hillary met privately with Senator Elizabeth Warren, says she's "intent on developing an economic platform that can speak to her party's populist wing and excite working class voters without alienating allies in the business community."

All this understates the deep divide between the party establishment and the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. Yes, all agree -- finally -- that this economy works only for the few and not the many. But the debate about what that means and what must be done to change it has only just begun, and already the differences are immense.

The center of the party -- including Obama and Hillary -- suggest that our extreme inequality just happened, sort of like the weather. Globalization and technology did it. Republican trickle-down economics made it worse. We can fix it with sensible reforms packaged as "middle-out economics." We'll give everyone a "fair shot," as the president puts it echoing Bill Clinton, "with everyone playing by the same set of rules."

In contrast, the left of the party realizes, as Elizabeth Warren has put it, that extreme inequality results because the "game is rigged" by the few to favor the few.

They stacked the deck. They use money and influence to protect their privileges. Playing by the same set of rules doesn't help if the rules are rigged. The core structures of our politics and our economy have to be changed to get a clean deal.

This won't happen without a relentless exposure of how the rules were fixed and who did it. And transforming it requires policy measures far bolder than anything suggested thusfar. Yet, already it is clear that on fundamental issues, while Democrats unite to stand in sharp contrast with Republicans, they divide dramatically among themselves. Consider:

Globalization. Republicans defend current global trade and tax policies, seeking mostly to find news ways to reduce corporate taxation. Obama, and most likely Hillary, support more corporate trade deals and would move to a territorial tax regime that exempts multinational corporations from paying taxes on moneys earned abroad. For the populist wing, the global trade and tax strategies have been catastrophic, running up record deficits, shipping jobs abroad, and lowering wages at home. The president's call for "fast track trade authority" will spark a furious debate, pitching the broad base of the party against Obama, Republicans and the Wall Street wing. We don't know where Hillary will stand yet, but the Clinton's generally have seen the current trade regime as part of their legacy.

Incomes Policy. Republicans oppose every measure to lift wages for working people, except income tax credits which provide a backdoor subsidy to low road employers like Walmart. Democrats generally favor strong reforms to lift the floor -- minimum wage, pay equity, paid sick and vacation days, revised overtime and more. But Democrats divide on empowering those in the middle or curbing the avarice at the top. While sporadically expressing support for unions and the right of workers to organize, both Obama and Bill Clinton were essentially AWOL when it came to pushing for reforms. Populists understand that strong unions are vital if the rewards of growth are to be widely shared. And argue that reform of our perverse CEO compensation policies -- which give CEOs multi-million dollar incentives to loot their own companies -- is critical to ensuring workers share in the profits and productivity they help to generate.

Shared Security. Republicans want to privatize, voucherize and/or cut our already threadbare safety net. Obama and Hillary would defend Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, although both would likely accept a grand bargain that would trade cuts for more revenue. Populists believe that Social Security should be expanded, not cut, to meet what will be a growing retirement crisis. And we argue for extending Medicare to all, finally guaranteeing all Americans affordable health care.

Wall Street and Financialization. Republicans have already begun to whittle away at the bank reforms, and argue that deregulation is vital to growth. Obama and Hillary pledge to defend the current reforms. But the big banks are bigger and more concentrated than ever. Populists argue that too big to fail means that they are too big to exist, and would break them up. Populists urge a financial speculation tax to curb the Wall Street casino. And want bankers, not just banks, held accountable for their crimes.

Tax and Invest. Republicans want lower taxes on the rich and corporations and more cuts in programs for the vulnerable. Obama supports modest increases in taxes on the rich and "revenue neutral" tax reform for corporations. Populists want the rich and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. That means income from wealth should be taxed at the same rates as the income from work, higher tax rates on the very wealthy, estate taxes that will curb the growth of dynastic wealth, and corporate tax reform that raises revenue and closes loopholes.

On public investments, Republican budgets would basically shutter the domestic capacity of government -- but Obama's projections aren't much better. Populists -- as detailed in the budgets offered by the Congressional Progressive Caucus -- would expand dramatically public investments in everything from rebuilding America, a fair start for every child, and world-class public education from pre-K through college or advanced training.

Climate and the Green Industrial Revolution. Republicans remain wedded to drill, baby, drill. Obama and Hillary espouse an "all of the above" energy policy, with Obama making significant strides in expanding renewables. Populists want the U.S. to adopt an industrial strategy that will aim explicitly at capturing the lead in the green industrial revolution that is already sweeping the world.

Global Security. Republicans, with few exceptions, have become a war party, supporting more U.S. intervention in conflicts across the globe. Obama has sought to limit at least the "stupid sh#t," even while sustaining a war on terror that extends into 120 countries at last count. He has expanded and defended an increasingly secret and unaccountable national security apparatus.

Hillary wants purposefully to run to Obama's right. Both would increase military spending. Populists argue that America can't police the world and is exhausting itself trying to do so. We want the empire of bases dismantled, our allies to bear a fair share of the burden, Pentagon waste and abuse curbed, a smaller military used only as a last resort. Hillary's bellicosity -- from Iraq to Libya to Syria and Ukraine -- is at odds with the nation's needs.

Corruption. Republicans rail against crony capitalism, while defending Big Oil subsidies, big money in politics, and erecting obstacles to voting. Obama and Hillary oppose the Republican reaction, but are skilled practitioners in big money politics. Populists want to clean out the stables, close the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, curb the role of big money, and expand democracy.

The differences with Republicans are apparent. But so too the divide among Democrats. The center offers attractive reforms, but would do little to alter the ways the rules are rigged. We need a much bolder debate about America's future.

The Emerging Movement

Occupy Wall Street forced inequality onto the national agenda. The post-Ferguson #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations bring the institutionalized racism of our criminal justice system to national attention. Movements have transformed Americans on civil rights, women's right, the environment, gay rights and more. But the engagement of Americans on taking on the entrenched interests that have rigged an economy that does not work for them has only just begun.

Our campaigns don't feature issue debates. The mainstream media highlight the horse race and the polls, even early, when they are at best meaningless indications of name recognition. "Gotcha" moments and slip-ups get more coverage than platforms. The candidates adopt poll-tested stump speeches and canned answers designed to appeal to what they believe their listeners want.

But a populist challenger in the Democratic primaries can reach out to, engage and help educate a new generation of activists. He or she could use public debates to expose fundamental differences to a broader audience. Most Americans pay little attention to politics amid the daily struggle to stay afloat. Presidential campaigns -- beginning with contested primaries -- can attract more interest. And importantly, activists pay attention, get involved, get inspired or turned off.

Hillary, of course, is the prohibitive favorite for the nomination. The money and machinery awaits her announcement. She has universal name recognition and a loyal base of support. She has more experience than any presidential candidate in memory. But her long experience makes it less likely that she will lay out a bold new direction and demand a mandate for change. The country needs a far bolder debate about direction.

A populist challenger might just confound expectations and fare better than most expect. But win or lose, a strong populist run would strengthen the rising movement on the left of the Democratic Party. Elizabeth Warren would take gender out of the equation, and pose a stark contrast to the Wall Street wing of the party. Bernie Sanders would provide a stentorian voice, defining the divide in direction and priorities that the country must choose. Jim Webb could issue a patriotic indictment of our failed global policies. Sherrod Brown would rouse Americans to choose Main Street over Wall Street and the working people over multinationals. Their arguments would reach citizens who are struggling to make sense out of a world that seems out of kilter, and a politics that seems more and more dominated by big money and entrenched interests. There is a fertile ground that needs tilling. A primary challenge won't on its own build a movement, but it can surely help fertilize one.