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Why the Democratic Party’s Future Depends on Finding a Moral Argument

Editors’ note: No Democratic president has won in recent decades on a platform of economic populism. But with the rhetoric of the 99 percent still in the air, and a proposal for a ‘Fair Share Tax’ at the center of his current platform, it seems President Obama might be attempting to do just that. We’ve asked a number of TNR writers to discuss whether it makes sense for Obama to run as a populist. Can a Democrat win on a populist message? Should Obama try? Click here to read the collected contributions.

Whether Barack Obama should run a populist campaign or not hinges on two questions. The first is fairly obvious: Can he win that way? But there’s a more important question that should decide Obama’s rhetorical approach, one that looks beyond just November: What kind of party do the Democrats want to be?

There are both potential risks and rewards if the president decides to spend the next six months portraying Mitt Romney as a wealthy, job-destroying investment banker who has never had to worry about paying for tuition, finding a job, or whether he can afford to buy his wife another Cadillac or vacation home. On the one hand, this strategy would probably motivate the blacks, Latinos, union members, and young voters of all races who turned out in huge numbers four years ago. Frustrated by the sluggish economy and disappointed by the gap between what Obama promised and was able to deliver, they need a reason to get excited, again.

On the other hand, the 10 to 15 percent of independent voters—nearly all of whom are white and middle class—who will determine whether he stays in office may well bridle if the president comes off as harsh and divisive. As Bill Galston pointed out this week, polls show these independents care more about economic growth and equal opportunity than they do about bashing Wall Street or closing the income gap. So the surge Obama would gain from his base, he might give right back if he alienates the almighty swing voters. I will leave it to brilliant statisticians like Nate Silver to figure out which group is larger—and in which purple states more of them reside.

But the fixation on whether or not to wage a populist campaign misses the more significant purpose a president’s rhetorical approach ought to serve. Last year, on this site, I criticized Obama for having “no strategy for creating a long-term majority—either for his party or for the progressive causes he believes in.” Sadly, that remains just as true today. Despite some impressive and certainly hard-won achievements during his first two years in office, the president’s popularity is due more to the missteps and heartless image of his right-wing adversaries than to anything he has said or done. That may be enough for him to win re-election, if narrowly, against a Republican nominee who makes Richard Nixon seem relaxed and amiable. But it is no way to chart a path for his second term or to build a majority coalition for Democrats in the future.

A well-crafted populist message could help achieve both those aims. The Great Recession shocked most Americans into realizing the tremendous damage that financial institutions, when largely unregulated, could do to their livelihoods and to the health of the larger economy. As the “no bailout” mantra of Tea Partiers attests, most conservatives are no more enamored of Wall Street than are liberals. Obama could explain, in clear and passionate terms, how the crisis of 2008 occurred and why only strict laws and constant vigilance can prevent one from recurring. At the same time, he needs to make a moral argument for a humane and effective state: Why higher wages, universal health care, enhanced funding for public and college education, and secure benefits for the elderly and unemployed are all essential to future economic growth—and why the GOP’s hostility to unions, funding the public sector, and desire to privatize Medicare and Social Security amount to a blueprint for national decline.

Unlike the simplistic bashing of the rich, this is a rhetorical strategy that would be popular, as well as populist. It would appeal to the young and the old, to white workers as well as to blacks and Latinos. And it’s one that, in most parts of the country, Democratic candidates for the House and Senate would be glad to echo. In a period of high, and quite rational, anxiety about the American future, such a populism gives them a message both stern and inspirational to run on.

And it could also benefit Obama’s party in elections to come, even if the slow, spasmodic recovery causes his defeat this November. Historically, in the face of adverse conditions, several losing presidential nominees have run bold, innovative campaigns that charted a fresh, and ultimately successful, path for their partisans to follow. William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 campaign helped transform the Democrats into the pro-labor, anti-corporate force that Woodrow Wilson and FDR would later ride to victory. In 1964, Barry Goldwater planted the seeds for  “economic liberty” and victory in the Cold War that Ronald Reagan would harvest in 1980. If Obama really cares as much about winning the future as eking out 270 electoral votes six months from now, he should not be shy to stand up for the interests and virtues of the hard-working many against the failures and designs of the self-serving few.

Michael Kazin’s most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He is co-editor of Dissent and teaches history at Georgetown University.