12/19/2007 11:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Three Traditions on Display in Iowa and New Hampshire

This year's primaries showcase three distinct political traditions within the Democratic Party. While reporters tend to focus on "gotcha politics" and fanciful psychological analysis of the candidates, something far more interesting is at stake. What kind of party should Democrats be? Each of the three traditions - populism, anti-politics, and pragmatic liberalism - is represented by one of the major contenders.

John Edwards has tapped into the populist tradition. Dating back to the late-nineteenth century, many Democrats have appealed to "average" workers and farmers by promising to take back power from America's wealthiest citizens. Edwards echoes the rhetoric of William Jennings Bryan, who in his 1896 Democratic Convention "Cross of Gold" speech supported free silver as a panacea to help farmers. Edwards also calls to mind Senator Huey Long's "Share the Wealth" plan in 1936, which tried to undermine President Franklin Roosevelt by promising a tax program to redistribute wealth -- and make, Long declared, "every man a king."

The appeal of the populist tradition is not difficult to explain: it resonates with portions of the electorate who feel that they have been abandoned, economically and politically. Populism often identifies real problems in America. But the tradition is flawed. The policies that populists promote are almost always simplistic or vague. And populism easily serves as a vehicle for ambitious politicians who feed off the voters' hurts and anxieties. Once in office, populist Democrats have often betrayed their egalitarian promises.

Another tradition comes to us through Senator Barack Obama: the tradition of anti-politics. This tradition has less to do with ending economic inequality or promoting radical foreign policy. Instead, candidates like Obama promise new approaches that supposedly move beyond existing debates while remaining pure. Democrats from this tradition have appealed to independent voters who are alienated from what they call "politics as usual." Adlai Stevenson ran in 1952 and 1956 with campaigns that shunned what Stevenson considered crass political appeals. In 1976, Jimmy Carter tried to shake America free from the ghosts of Watergate by telling voters they could trust him.

Anti-politics can exert powerful appeal in a political culture that tends to distrust politicians. The tradition has built support for reforms that vastly improve our democratic system. Yet anti-political Democrats have frequently been defeated when they face candidates who understand that cynical voters generally find bread-and-butter issues more important than assurances of a whole new style of politics.

More important, those anti-politics Democrats who win have had trouble achieving very much. Carter's agenda, for example, remained largely unfulfilled as he found himself in conflict with Democratic legislators. Speaker Tip O'Neill felt that, "too many of the troops he brought with him were amateurs. They didn't know much about Washington, but that didn't prevent them from being arrogant . . . ." Other observers blamed Carter directly for his high-minded disdain for wheeling and dealing - that is, for politics itself.

Hillary Clinton reflects the third Democratic tradition in the primaries, one that the populists and anti-politics Democrats like to disparage as unprincipled -- the tradition of pragmatic liberalism. Clinton learned the value of the pragmatic tradition the hard way in 1994, when her husband's health care plan, which she spearheaded, collapsed. While in the Senate, Clinton has became a much different type of politician. She moved from attempting to restructure the national system to more focused issues such as the treatment of medical information and the children's health care. She surprised Republicans by pushing for improved benefits for soldiers and lobbying against closing military bases.

Pragmatic liberal Democrats believe in the value of government but are also realists committed to working within the political system, with all its imperfections. Dismissed as disingenuous, flip-floppers, or opportunists who lack any core values, they been effective presidents. The most successful case was Franklin Roosevelt. When he rose to the White House, many people inside Roosevelt's own party distrusted him for his willingness to compromise and switch positions on almost any issue. Senator Long complained that when he spoke to Roosevelt, the president said "Fine! Fine! Fine!" But the next day Roosevelt told Long's opponent the same. "Maybe he says 'Fine!' to everybody," Long concluded. But Roosevelt was not simply indecisive. He believed that Democrats needed to achieve legislative results, especially in an era of crisis, and that meant working through the legislative process. As a result, he was able to win the enduring victories of the New Deal.

There are pitfalls to liberal pragmatism, as there are to the other traditions. Sometimes, its proponents can too easily confuse clever political maneuvering with overreaching, as Roosevelt did when he attempted to pack the Supreme Court in 1937. Lyndon Johnson, another gifted pragmatic Democrat, saw the Great Society, go up in smoke as a result of his calculations over Vietnam.

During the coming months, Democratic voters must not only decide which candidate to support but which of their party's traditions they prefer. The fact that all three traditions are on display is a healthy sign that the party is invigorated and on the move, and it makes this an important primary season -- one that can define the party's direction long after November.