• U.S.

Liberal and Populist Tugs

4 minute read
Laurence I. Barrett

Seeking instructive solace from the wreckage of 1980 and 1984, Democratic strategists extracted an obvious lesson: the old liberal coalition could not stay glued together. Instead, the party had to woo the three Ms — middle classes, middle Americans, moderates — who seek sensible solutions to concrete problems. After all, the same voters who gave the White House and Senate to the Republicans have also awarded most Governor’s mansions and city halls to pragmatic, moderate Democrats.

Logical? Certainly. Difficult to sell to a party still studded with feisty factions? Again, certainly. Just look at some of the hottest primaries this year. Democrats have said, quite plainly, that the moderate line by itself bores them. Passion, whether lighted by the flame of old- fashioned liberalism or populism, still burns deeply in their hearts.

The perils of preaching moderation were underscored last week when the Democratic Policy Commission, a group of 100 elected officials from all levels of government chartered by Party Chairman Paul Kirk, published what amounts to a midterm platform. Titled New Choices in a Changing America, it is crammed with sensible proposals of modest caliber. But its most striking feature is its emphasis on moderate and mainstream chords, like the importance of family values. Some of the phrases might have come from a Reagan speech. For example: “. . . the political arrogance that would have bureaucrats run our economy and dictate our daily lives.” On some of the most critical issues, like reducing the federal deficit, the document offers platitudes rather than a firm position. Bland cliches give only token attention to traditional Democratic concerns such as civil rights and equal rights for women.

That much oatmeal between glossy red-white-and-blue covers made the party’s surviving left wing gag. Observed Ann Lewis, director of the Americans for Democratic Action: “It was not the stuff that energizes voters.” Pointing out that Democratic primary voters this year have recoiled from centrist candidates, she added, “Every primary in which there was a clear choice between a real Democrat and an imitation, they chose the genuine article.” If “real Democrat” is defined as liberal, the returns in several key contests bear her out. In Georgia, for example, Hamilton Jordan ran on a platform of moving the party to the center but lost to Wyche Fowler, the most liberal Congressmen in the state. In New York, John Dyson had ample money and mushy moderate ideas; he lost to Mark Green, a pugnacious reformer. The clearest choice was in Pennsylvania, where Congressman Bob Edgar ran against State Auditor General Don Bailey; the claim of “real Democrat” flew like a shuttlecock. While in the House, Bailey had backed Reagan on some fiscal and social issues. Edgar, a staunch progressive, had the last word in debate — and at the ballot box — when he declared, “A real Democrat would have stood up to President Reagan and said no to those unfair tax policies.”

But the pattern has been more complex than that. Where there was little choice on issues, victory has gone to those who seemed most committed to the interests of the average person, rather than those of the Establishment. That is the classic strategy of populism, born a century ago. Though the movement has zigzagged through the political landscape, and though some conservatives now claim a share of its legacy, populism’s core remains its opposition to assorted elites. In Maryland, for instance, the voting records of Representatives Barbara Mikulski and Michael Barnes are both strongly liberal. Mikulski, the shrill voice of blue-collar Baltimore, easily bested Barnes, the urbane, bloodless spokesman of upscale Montgomery County.

Early this year, Democratic Pollster Peter Hart noted the lack of broad, cutting issues. “If there is a single message voters want to send in 1986,” he advised his party, “it is ‘Care about me, don’t forget about me, and don’t sell me out.’ ” That theme had particularly loud resonance in this year’s primaries; with turnout even lower than usual, activists who cared enough to vote gave the results a strongly populist tilt.

Reagan has reminded the entire electorate that politicians can take strong stands and succeed. Whatever they think of his policies, voters clearly admire that quality and continue to look for it in candidates. That is the most important lesson of 1980, 1984 and so far of 1986 — for those who vote right, left or center.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com