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Why the Country Needs a Populist Challenger in the Democratic Primaries

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Reprinted from Campaign For America's Future

From Clinton - Obama
Clinton - Obama
(image by calebk23)

Polls show Democrats want a contest, not a coronation, for their presidential nomination. The press yearns for a primary contest, if only to have something to cover. A raft of reasons are floated for why a challenge would be useful, most of them spurious.

Hillary Clinton doesn't need a contest to get her campaign shipshape. 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 adept at 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 speechwriters. She won't need a challenger to teach her the lines.

There are two compelling reasons for a challenge in the Democratic primaries: We need a big debate about the direction of the country, and a growing populist movement would benefit from a populist challenge to Hillary.

The Divide

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This isn't conventional wisdom. Matt Yglesias argues that Clinton is the prohibitive favorite for the nomination not because of experience, 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 President Obama's populist songbook. All favor raising the minimum wage, pay equity, investment in infrastructure, bank regulation.

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

In fact, there are deep divides between the party establishment and the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. All affirm, finally, that this economy works only for the few and not the many. But after that, the differences are immense.

The center of the party -- which Hillary occupies -- argues 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." Everyone gets a "fair shot," as the president puts it, echoing Bill Clinton, "and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

The Democratic wing of the party understands, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren has put it, that extreme inequality is the result of the "rules being rigged" by the few to favor the few. The deck is stacked. Playing by the same set of rules doesn't change the outcome if the rules are rigged. The core structures of our politics and our economy have to be changed to get a clean deal.

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On fundamental issues, all Democrats stand in sharp contrast with Republicans, but they divide dramatically among themselves. Consider:

Globalization. Republicans basically defend current global trade and tax policies, seeking mostly to find new ways to reduce corporate taxation. Obama, and most likely Clinton, support more corporate trade deals and would move to a territorial system that exempts corporations from paying taxes on money 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.

Incomes Policy. Republicans oppose every measure to lift wages for working people, except tax credits, which provide a backdoor subsidy to low-road employers like Walmart. All Democrats favor strong reforms for low-wage workers -- 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. They also argue that reform of our perverse CEO compensation policies -- which give CEOs multimillion-dollar incentives to loot their own companies -- is critical to insuring 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 Clinton would defend Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, although both flirt with a grand bargain that would result in cuts. Populists believe that Social Security should be expanded, not cut, to meet what will be a growing retirement crisis. We also 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 Clinton 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.

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Robert L. Borosage is the president of the Institute for America's Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America's Future. The organizations were launched by 100 prominent Americans to challenge the rightward drift (more...)

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