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Populism as an Electoral Strategy: From Howard Dean to Hillary Clinton

The sordid records of past Democratic “populists” show why voters need to be skeptical of similar establishment politicians.

Part of the Series

During the Democratic presidential primary debates, Hillary Clinton has critiqued Bernie Sanders’ proposal for a national, single-payer health-care system. Her stated opposition does not come as a surprise; Clinton has long rejected single-payer health care (at least in public) and has received more money from drug companies this election cycle than any candidate in either party. What is noteworthy, however, is the way she attacks it.

In an impressive, if sinister, act of doublespeak, Clinton claims Sanders’ single-payer health care “eliminates Medicare” and empowers right-wing governors. These arguments are patently false. Sanders’ proposal would not only keep Medicare, but also would expand it to the entire population. But it is quite telling to watch Clinton paint her attack on single-payer, absurdly, as an act of economic populism.

In 1999, before his post-9/11 abandonment of the left, Christopher Hitchens observed that “the essence of American politics” is “the manipulation of populism by elitism.” This quote, fittingly included in his polemical book, No One Left to Lie to: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, describes Hillary Clinton’s recent take on single-payer – and much of her other campaign rhetoric – quite well.

Clinton’s opposition to this kind of reform is a direct rebuttal of popular opinion and the interests of the working class. According to a Kaiser poll from December 17, 2015, 58 percent of Americans “support Medicare for all.” Clinton’s stance, however, is of great benefit to the insurance and drug industries that have long showered her with donations and that oppose this kind of reform with vigor.

Clinton’s intimation that she is opposing public health care out of great concern for “the people” is clearly disingenuous. And this is just one of many examples of the Clinton campaign attempting to paint its candidate as a “populist fighter” during the primary. “The American president,” she said in her opening statement in the ABC debate on December 19, 2015, “[has to] make the economy grow in a way that helps everyone, not just those at the top. That is the job.” As members of the public have increasingly expressed their anger at a rigged economy, Clinton has recognized that she needs to play the role of the populist to maximize her chances of winning the presidency. She also seeks to convince Sanders’ supporters, which now include Democracy for America and the Communications Workers of America, to follow her into the general election should she win the primary.

As a result, the debate over the authenticity of Clinton’s newfound populism rages on. This is not a new phenomenon. Howard Dean, Ned Lamont and John Edwards have all attempted similar efforts to rebrand themselves as populists in recent elections. Examining this recent history – with the benefit of hindsight – can provide important context for understanding Clinton’s campaign and the relationship between populism, establishment politicians and US elections.

Howard Dean in 2004: “A Creation of Joe Trippi”

During the 2004 Democratic presidential primary, most major candidates spent their efforts trying to convince voters they would be the best leader to stop terrorism. In the first presidential election since 9/11 and not even a year after President George W. Bush started the illegal war in Iraq, foreign policy issues were front and center.

At the time of the March 2003 invasion, 72 percent of Americans supported the war, swayed in large part by an extensive disinformation campaign from the Bush administration. As the presidential primary heated up later that year, most of the Democrats who were angling for the presidency voted for the war and continued to support it. The eventual nominee, John Kerry, advocated for a 40,000-person increase in troop levels on the ground.

The major candidates – John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, Joseph Lieberman and John Kerry – all had voted for the war and were broadly supportive of it (if occasionally critical of Bush’s “handling” of the war). Around this time political operative Joe Trippi was attempting to find a way to distinguish his lesser-known candidate, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, from the others. The Democratic candidates’ support for the war provided an opening.

“Trippi, who was a [liberal] Democrat, was delighted that Howard [Dean] had not voted for the Iraq war, unlike Lieberman, Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards and Hillary,” said Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, in an interview with Truthout.

Of course, Dean had one advantage that his opponents did not have. The reason he didn’t vote for the war, Nelson says, “was because he was not in Congress at the time.”

The truth is that Howard Dean was never a populist crusader and isn’t one now.

So Dean’s campaign attempted to tap into the populist sentiment of many progressive voters who opposed the war and felt they had no allies among the other candidates, most of whom were strongly aligned with the hawkish Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Among Dean’s supporters were contributors to liberal political blogs such as MyDD and Daily Kos, which became known as the “Netroots.” These bloggers used the internet to help Dean break fundraising records with small donations. “If I give a speech and the blog people don’t like it, next time I change the speech,” Dean told Wired in 2004.

Dean gave fiery speeches in front of young and enthusiastic supporters and claimed that he was from the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” The message resonated and the momentum improbably had Dean leading in the polls just weeks before the New Hampshire primary.

“Dean caught the Democrats flat-footed and it took them awhile to counter,” Nelson said. But in time the establishment did counter. The DLC sharply attacked Dean, saying he was from “the McGovern-Mondale wing” of the party, defined “principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest group liberalism at home.”

The media attacked him too. Time magazine’s Joe Klein accused him of “populist demagoguery.” A 2003 Washington Post article was headlined “Short-Fused Populist, Breathing Fire at Bush,” and described Dean as such: “Howard Dean was angry. Ropy veins popped out of his neck, blood rushed to his cheeks, and his eyes, normally blue-gray, flashed black, all dilated pupils.”

While his supporters were excited at Dean’s populist fervor, Nelson was back in Vermont, rolling his eyes.

“Everyone in the world was saying this guy was a real liberal, antiwar politician, but it just wasn’t true,” he said. “Dean, the candidate, was not the same person we saw govern in Vermont. He was a creation of Joe Trippi.”

In time, the attacks on Dean by the DLC and the media took a toll and Dean was knocked out of the primary, leading the way for Kerry’s failed candidacy. But to this day, many liberals look to Dean as a populist hero. This is an excellent example of how a well-executed political campaign can convince voters to ignore a politician’s record and to trust his or her rhetoric.

The truth is that Howard Dean was never a populist crusader and isn’t one now. People from Vermont, who knew Dean before he was remade by Trippi, knew this as well as anyone. “Mention Howard Dean to the folks [in Vermont] who know him best, and they shake their heads in awe,” said a 2003 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer that interviewed Vermonters about Dean’s rise to national status. “They see him on TV, firing up the liberals, and they’re dumbfounded, because they always knew him as a tightwad governor who spent 10 years excoriating liberals.”

Indeed, as governor of Vermont, Dean was known for being a budget hawk who, according to Bloomberg, positioned himself “well to the right of many members of his own party.” He told The New York Times in 2001 that he “made his mark as a fiscal conservative,” and at times showed a lack of compassion for the poor.

“[Vermont Republicans] also liked that he wasn’t a ‘bleeding heart,'” the Inquirer reported, “as evidenced by the time he publicly berated a single mother on welfare, saying, ‘You don’t think you ought to work for a living?'”

Even on foreign policy, which is the issue on which Dean really garnered his support, he lacked progressive credentials. While he opposed the war at the outset, as a candidate he waffled on the issue of whether to bring US troops home. On most Middle East issues, including Iran, he was a hawk. As Ahmed Nassef wrote in Alternet, Dean thought President “Bush was way too soft on Iran.” As recently as 2011, Dean contributed to the xenophobic fervor over a proposed mosque to be built near the World Trade Center ground zero site in New York City, when he called it “an affront to the people who lost their lives [on 9/11].”

Further, Dean has always been an extremely close ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the hawkish pro-Israel group that lobbies Congress to continue its financial and diplomatic support of Israel, despite its illegal occupation of Palestine and the many war crimes it has committed in Gaza, Lebanon and elsewhere. As AIPAC’s own website boasts, “AIPAC has a long-standing relationship with Governor Dean, who during his campaign for President traveled to Israel on a trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), a supporting organization of AIPAC.” During this trip, Nassef wrote, Dean condemned Palestinian violence but did not utter a word about Israeli violence against Palestinians. This was just after Dean named Steven Grossman, a former AIPAC head, as his campaign’s chief fundraiser.

A decade later, Dean returned the favor by endorsing Grossman in his failed 2014 bid for governor of Massachusetts, calling him a “bold, progressive leader.” The Boston Globe observed that “the endorsement could help Grossman appeal to Democrats who fondly recall Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004, when he rose to prominence on a wave of antiwar fervor.” This is a good case study on how Dean’s unwarranted reputation as a populist fighter continues to influence voters and have real-world implications.

The same could be said of his decision to endorse Hillary Clinton for president. Clinton was once a key leader of the DLC organization that tore his campaign down. And she is clearly much less progressive than Bernie Sanders, her opponent, who, like Dean hails from Vermont. In fact, the group Dean started after he ended his 2004 presidential run, Democracy for America, has endorsed Sanders. Yet, Dean continues to use his reputation as a populist to help elite candidates – the “manipulation of populism by elitism,” as Hitchens described it.

The Cautionary Tale of Ned Lamont

Two years after the 2004 presidential election antiwar bloggers found a new progressive hero who appealed to their justified anger at the war, which by 2006 had lost the support of most Americans and most troops. By this time most Democrats were running in the 2006 midterm elections as critics of the war, including many of those who had voted for the war originally. It was the most important factor in the 2006 midterm elections, when Democrats took back Congress. (It is worth noting that Democrats were fairly toothless in their “opposition” to the war once in office, continuing to fund the war and condemning the war in worthless nonbinding resolutions).

But one notable holdout was Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who had doubled down on his support of the war and of Bush’s aggressive foreign policy more broadly. Often derided by liberals as “Bush’s favorite Democrat,” Lieberman supported the war and President Bush at every turn, at one point warning Democrats that “in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.” This advice earned him praise from the neoconservative Weekly Standard, which called him “one of the very few adults” in the Democratic Party.

Democratic voters in Connecticut didn’t agree, which made Lieberman, an 18-year incumbent, vulnerable in his 2006 re-election campaign. And so the Ned Lamont campaign was born.

Lamont ran against Lieberman almost exclusively by attacking him on the war. Like Dean before him, much of his support came from bloggers and internet groups – what The Nation called “Ned Lamont’s digital constituency.”

Looking back now it is hard to believe Ned Lamont was once a populist, antiwar hero on a national level.

Matt Stoller, of the once influential blog MyDD, introduced Lamont to Tim Tagaris, the Democratic National Committee staffer who would join Lamont’s campaign. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas was so linked to the campaign that he appeared in one of Ned Lamont’s first ads. The Senate election in Connecticut drew national attention as a referendum on the war. Lamont defeated Lieberman in the primary on August 8, 2006, prompting Lieberman to run as an independent. At this point, Lamont was seen as a threat to the establishment and was attacked viciously. A CNN anchor even described Lamont as the “al-Qaeda candidate.”

When the general election took place, Lieberman defeated Lamont with the help of many Republican voters. The GOP chose not to put resources behind the winner of the Republican primary in Connecticut, Alan Schlesinger, knowing it would give a boost to Lieberman. Lamont never made it to the Senate, but by taking advantage of public outrage at the war, he did become a national antiwar figure.

“Ned Lamont was in the right place at the right time,” said Kenneth Dautrich, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, in an interview with Truthout. “It is easier to take advantage of populism with social media these days and he took off…. In reality, he was really a fiscal conservative.”

Indeed, looking back now it is hard to believe Ned Lamont was once a populist, antiwar hero on a national level. He left behind no major legacy or movement, many of the blogs that made up the Netroots (MyDD, OpenLeft, Firedoglake, My Left Nutmeg) are now defunct and Moulitsas is now supporting Clinton, the quintessential establishment candidate, and attacking her more progressive opponents.

Lamont did attempt to use his fame to win public office in Connecticut, running for governor in 2010. But this time he did not run as a populist who would fight for the little guy – he did the opposite. A New York Times article titled, “Lamont Moves to Center in Connecticut,” observed that the former “darling of the left,” had rebranded himself as a pro-business, conservative Democrat.

“Progressives are grumbling that he has talked too much about tax breaks and streamlining red tape, and not enough about issues dear to labor unions and government watchdogs,” the Times reported. When Lamont announced his candidacy, the Times added, he used the word “business” more than a dozen times. Blogs that supported him fervently in 2006 were much less enthusiastic in 2010. “Ned [yawn] Lamont announces for [snore] Governor,” read one headline at the blog My Left Nutmeg.

In fact, some argue his most important political legacy is not as a populist hero but as a tragic figure who lost in 2010 because he abandoned the working class. Lamont opposed paid sick leave for workers at small businesses during his run for governor. He lost the primary to the eventual governor, Dannel Malloy, who supported mandatory paid sick leave. Katrina vanden Heuvel, writing in The Washington Post in June 2015, cited Lamont’s failings in 2010 as a pivotal moment in the fight for universal paid sick leave. “Lamont’s defeat sent a clear message that opposing paid sick leave came with a political cost, and Connecticut passed the first statewide law guaranteeing it in 2012,” she wrote.

She was not alone in this view. Lucia Graves of National Journal cited Lamont’s defeat to Malloy on paid sick leave as a key reason the issue “emerged as a Democratic strong suit.” ThinkProgress made the same argument in September 2015, saying, “2010 was a crucial year for the [paid sick leave] movement,” and pointing to Lamont’s defeat as the crucial reason.

It is hard to believe that in less than a decade Lamont went from a populist hero to a cautionary tale about the consequence of shunning working families. But his story is just one more indicator of why voters need to be skeptical of politicians who claim to advocate for the people.

John Edwards: “An Epic Fight Against Concentrated Wealth and Power”

John Edwards’ 2008 presidential run has largely been forgotten. Whatever buzz he created in the primary was soon overshadowed by the competitive primary race between Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama, the election of President Obama in 2008, and, of course, the sex scandals that ruined Edwards’ political career. But his campaign, led by the aforementioned Joe Trippi, is also a compelling case study in the art of political populism.

It is somewhat stunning, in retrospect, to see just how aggressive his message of economic populism was. His 2007 speech in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is a telling example. Dressed down in jeans, Edwards called for an “epic fight in front of us,” with “these entrenched, powerful, moneyed interests.” He cited “drug companies, oil companies [and] insurance companies” as the enemies and accused his primary opponents of not having the will to make this fight.

He was the first mainstream candidate to ever mention – let alone endorse – the “public option” health-care plan that Obama and Senate Democrats would shamelessly abandon in 2010 when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was passed. (Bernie Sanders, it is worth noting, threatened to oppose any version of the ACA if the public option was removed, though he eventually relented in exchange for increased funding for community health centers).

When Edwards explained his health-care plan, he actually uttered the term “single-payer” in a semi-favorable way, when he advocated for the public option.

“One of the choices, by the way, available in these health markets is the government plan. So people who like the idea of a single-payer insurer health plan, that is actually one of the alternatives that people can choose,” he said in a February 2007 episode of “Meet the Press.”

His record in the Senate undercuts any notion that John Edwards’ populism was sincere.

This, of course, is clearly not an argument in favor of single-payer, but his decision to use the word to compare it to the public option was no doubt a calculated one. The term single-payer is still treated like a germ by most mainstream Democrats with presidential ambitions, including Clinton and Obama. Edwards’ language on health care was a clear effort to outflank the other candidates from the left using populist messaging. It had some success.

“Credit should go to Edwards, who not only was the first of the three to propose it, but who said that if so many people chose the public option that over time it evolved into a single-payer system, that would be fine with him,” observed the American Prospect in December 2008, 15 months before the Democrats officially killed a watered-down version of the proposal.

The 2008 version of John Edwards also appealed to populism with his demeanor. With his brows furrowed, he would speak with both anger and passion.

“Edwards was breathing fire,” author and activist Paul Street told Truthout. “You’d go to a town hall in Iowa and hear Edwards just blow the roof off the joint calling for ‘an epic fight against concentrated wealth and power’ and including ‘corporate Democrats’ along with Republicans in the list of elitist enemies. The crowds went nuts.”

Street, a Midwesterner who attended several Edwards events in Iowa, notes that Edwards was far more combative in his tone in 2008 than Bernie Sanders is in 2016. “Edwards went after Hillary and Obama and business-captive Democrats in harsh tones that you never hear from Sanders,” he said. “Sanders is ridiculously polite and respectful towards Hillary Clinton and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him utter the phrase ‘corporate Democrats.'”

But for all of Edwards’ bluster, it is hard to imagine the candidate’s rhetoric was driven by an unceasing anger at injustice. Edwards, a wealthy trial lawyer, ran for office in 2004 and his demeanor was radically different.

Further, his record in the Senate also undercuts any notion that Edwards’ populism was sincere. Edwards, like Clinton, was a member of the Senate New Democrat Coalition and an ally of the conservative, pro-Wall Street Democratic Leadership Council. In 2002, Edwards spoke at the DLC’s National Conversation in New York City, giving a speech titled, “Putting Responsibility First.” In the speech, he argued, “What’s good for corporate America can be very good for ordinary Americans.”

While he did eventually apologize for his vote to authorize the Iraq war, he had been among the most hawkish Democrats in Congress. He penned a Washington Post op-ed in September 2002 – just weeks before the infamous vote – arguing “Congress must be clear” in its support for war. He also voted for the Patriot Act in 2002, had been hawkish on Iran and was always cozy with AIPAC.

“John Edwards was one example of populist veneer covering a political career dedicated to the service of corporate America,” said Elizabeth Schulte, who wrote about Edwards’ presidential runs in 2004 and 2008, in an interview with Truthout.

While in the Senate, Schulte reported, he voted to allow mountaintop-removal mining practices, exempt pickup trucks from fuel-efficiency standards, and to support storing nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

Unlike Dean, Edwards is not still revered as a progressive hero, but that has more to do with scandals from his personal life. But the record indicates that he wasn’t a man driven by populist conviction but rather by “blind ambition,” as one former supporter, Al Sturgeon, described Edwards in the Sioux City Journal.

“This [behavior] from a man who ran as a populist,” Sturgeon lamented. “I get particularly disgusted about this when I think of the many hard-working wage-earners who made modest but important contributions to the Edwards campaign because they believed in him.”

Gender and Progressivism

All three of the above candidates have more in common than their pseudo-populism. They are all white, male and rich. This is not a huge surprise in a political world that has long been dominated by rich, white men. The 114th Congress is 80 percent white, 80 percent male and 92 percent Christian, and these woeful numbers actually represent the most diverse Congress in history. Unlike President Obama or Hillary Clinton, the likes of Dean, Lamont and Edwards didn’t offer voters a chance to make civil rights history.

Clinton offers progressive voters a chance to elect the first woman president – a worthy goal with major historic implications. But, as Akwugo Emejulu, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, said in an interview with Truthout, “Gender and populism have an uneasy relationship.”

“[This is] because when a politician explicitly discusses gender, race or sexuality she runs the risk of dividing ‘the people’ by highlighting power imbalances and inequalities among the supposedly united ‘people,'” said Emejulu, who has written extensively on the intersection of feminism and populism.

Further, she said, “Clinton is not a populist politician. She is the ultimate establishment candidate. She can’t deploy populist messages effectively because she’s a Washington insider.”

“I would tell people not to believe her [populist rhetoric],” Margaret Kimberley, an editor and senior columnist at Black Agenda Report, told Truthout. “Right now in America we have a right-wing party and a center-right party … and Clinton is a true believer in this kind of system.”

Kimberley’s critique of Clinton is stronger than most, but she is not alone in having doubts about the candidate. In a National Journal article from May 2015, Molly Mirhashem interviewed 47 young feminists. She said that while many of them said they would likely support Clinton in 2016, “only about a quarter of them were en­thu­si­ast­ic or emphat­ic in their sup­port.” Some called Clinton a “corporate feminist,” “not very progressive” and “part of a political dynasty.”

These sentiments are perhaps why Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s populist message has been so endearing to progressives. Warren, who went into law and politics after raising a family, was advocating for the working class for decades before she was a household name. Like Bernie Sanders, she gets no money from the financial sector and has been described by left-leaning magazines as “passionately beloved,” “a left-wing media rock star” and “one of the nation’s foremost experts on bankruptcy.”

Groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee continue to urge the 2016 candidates to adopt “Warren-wing” issues during the Democratic primary debates. Warren’s influence is certainly among the reasons Clinton has felt compelled to run to the left. Peter Beinart went as far as arguing in a 2013 Daily Beast article that we were witnessing the “Rise of the New New Left,” in large part due to Warren.

But even with progressive women voices like Warren working with the Democratic Party, Kimberley is among those who are skeptical. “Hillary Clinton is a woman but she is not articulating policies that address the needs of women, beyond a few platitudes,” she said.

A genuinely left-wing candidate, Kimberley maintains, is more likely to be found in the Green Party, which is currently running Jill Stein for president. “Stein is an authentic populist,” she said. “This is not true with the Democratic Party, which hasn’t run a left candidate in a long time.”

In any event, all women candidates face major challenges in comparison to their male counterparts. “Female candidates, regardless of their politics, must walk a fine line of traditional/nonthreatening femininity and have masculine characteristics that the public associates with a strong leader,” Emejulu said. “Female candidates, populists or otherwise, always have to walk this tightrope to be taken seriously as viable politicians. Male politicians do not have to perform in this way since they dominate politics and are the norm.”

Rhetoric vs. Action and the Case for Skepticism

The above examples are not anomalies. During Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, he promised to “put people first,” but ended up hurting labor by passing the North American Free Trade Agreement and cutting welfare for the neediest Americans. “This is an insult to the working people who are expected to back the Democrats, no matter how little their actions match their rhetoric,” Schulte said.

Another example is President Obama failing to expend political capital on the Employee Free Choice Act, despite promising organized labor he would fight for it during his 2008 campaign. “The Obama administration has hardly lifted a finger on behalf of the 30,000 workers who are fired every year for trying to join a union,” wrote labor reporter Mike Elk in a 2010 Truthout article.

These lessons of the past matter a great deal in the 2016 election when assessing the authenticity of Clinton’s populist rhetoric. Clinton’s most militant supporters argue that the candidate has always been a populist crusader; others argue her transformation is sincere. Some have a different answer to the question: “Is Clinton a populist?”

“The truth is it doesn’t matter [if Clinton is really progressive],” writes Brian Beutler in the New Republic. “Clinton’s movement to the left is unalloyed good news for liberals. Because if she wins the presidency as a result, that would change American politics in perpetuity.”

This argument requires both wishful thinking and a really short memory. In our flawed republic, popular opinion is only tenuously connected to public policy. Moreover, in a post-Citizens United world, wealthy elites and corporations have more power than ever before. So it is quite a leap to assume a candidate will feel tremendous pressure to answer on their progressive promises as long as they answer to these industries.

But this is the leap many Clinton supporters insist voters take. Clinton has insisted she will “put an end to the patterns of corporate wrongdoing that we see too often today.” But as she makes these claims, her campaign is cashing the industry’s checks. Her populist rhetoric has not scared off Wall Street from supporting her; among all the presidential candidates in both parties, only Jeb Bush gets more money from Big Finance than does Clinton.

Despite what Beutler argues, these concerns do matter a great deal. The lessons from our recent history have taught us to be extremely wary of any establishment politicians who attempt to rebrand themselves as populists. In the United States, populism is often worn like a Halloween costume. And like a Halloween costume, it is often discarded soon after it serves its purpose.