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Inside Politics

Which Brand Would You Buy?

By Joe Klein

As I've watched the deep foolishness that has marked the first months of George W. Bush's second term as President -- both parties seem zealously intent on ignoring the common good -- I've been thinking about a fellow I used to know, a marketing whiz named Jim Matson.

Jim invented Heartland Natural Cereal, the first mass-market granola, which came in a sepia-toned box. It was a brilliant response to growing public nostalgia and a desire for "natural" products in the 1970s. His favorite pastime was to walk down a supermarket aisle sensing the products that weren't there.

No doubt, if Jim took a stroll through the American supermarket of ideas today he would find some compelling products missing too. In a poll of voters conducted by Democrat Diane Feldman, who worked for John Kerry last year, 72% agreed that the "nation's leaders see ... the current problems and opportunities differently from the way [I] do."

There are, of course, plenty of different ways to look at problems, but I suspect what's really missing here are the two most important political products: a Party of Sanity, representing the pragmatic centrism of the business and professional elites, and a Party of Passion, representing populist anger about outsourcing, illegal immigration, social permissiveness and Bush's overseas activism.

In fact, Democracy Corps -- a polling consortium run by Democrats James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Bob Shrum-- tested products named after well-known popularizers of the economic aspects of these points of view: the eminently Sane New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and the surprisingly Passionate CNN anchor Lou Dobbs. Stick around for the results of the Dobbs-vs.-Friedman election, but first ... a few caveats.

There is no such thing as a pure political product. The two existing political parties are amalgams of passion and sanity, traditional liberalism and conservatism. Those who win the presidency create harmonic majorities by plausibly balancing these strains. A pure populist has not been elected since Andrew Jackson. And since Franklin Roosevelt, all the elitists have taken pains to demonstrate their common-man credentials. For most of the past century, the Friedmanite establishment tended to be moderate Republican, and economic populists like Dobbs found a home in the Democratic Party.

But Ronald Reagan tapped into a vein of conservative social populism that changed the G.O.P., and a series of effete intellectual candidacies -- from Eugene McCarthy's to John Kerry's -- has reflected the Democrats' transformation into a party dominated by well-educated coastal professionals. In the 2004 election, Bush beat Kerry among the white working class by some 24 points.

But the real oddity of American politics in the information age has been the relative powerlessness of both populism and elitism.

Dobbsians despair about the rule of corporate interests; Friedmanites despair about the reign of witless partisanship. Both groups, but especially the Friedmanites, are appalled by the willingness of politicians -- and yes, the press -- to let social issues like the life and death of Terri Schiavo and peripheral fights over presidential appointments overwhelm the traditional priorities of economic and foreign policy. But the political landscape may be about to change.

The Party of Sanity has rallied in recent weeks. The first sign was the bipartisan agreement by 14 U.S. Senators to preserve the filibuster rule while allowing a vote on some of President Bush's more conservative judicial appointments. Some experts opined that this marked the beginning of a third force in the Senate -- the Philadelphia Inquirer even suggested it held the potential for "a third party of the center" -- but what it really marked was the restoration of business as usual: control of the Senate by moderate consensus.

A second sign came on May 29, when the New York Times reported that 24 leaders of groups ranging from the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the liberal AFL-CIO had been meeting secretly for seven months because they were worried about the sketchy, inefficient quality of American health care and wanted to figure out a proposal for universal coverage. Two weeks earlier, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Newt Gingrich, the yin and yang of politics in the 1990s, announced that they had found common ground on the issue as well.

The renewed search for a comprehensive health-care solution reflects a deeper tide of concern in corporate America over the debilitating costs of providing health insurance and pensions for employees. These concerns are accompanied by general alarm in the Party of Sanity over the fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush Administration, the continuing frustration over the war in Iraq, and the Administration's failure to lead instead of attempting to dominate an Alliance of Sanity in the world.

Is it possible that these victories represent the glimmerings of a blissfully reasonable new era? The front runners for the presidency in both parties, Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton, are essentially Sane sorts. But both will have to navigate the partisan interests, especially the secular and religious extremists, in their respective parties. And both will have to worry about being overtaken by candidates representing their party's version of the Party of Passion.

In fact, there appears to be a growing market for a moderate version of "America First" populism, which has been represented in recent presidential elections only by extremists like Pat Buchanan and Dennis Kucinich. The outlines of this product are well known: more restrictive trade and illegal-immigration policies, a "bring the troops home soonest" foreign policy and a more conservative view of social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

The Pew Research Center conducted an extensive survey of the American electorate, dividing voters into nine political types -- and while this sort of slicing and dicing is superficial almost by definition, a stunning subtext emerged: the populist proclivities of nearly 70% of the electorate, ranging across the spectrum from "social conservatives" to "disadvantaged Democrats." When Pew asked if it was better for the government to focus on problems at home or be active in the world, the homebodies won 49% to 44%, with a dramatic split according to family income (the wealthier, the worldlier). "I wouldn't be surprised," says Carville, "if the coming word in American politics was neo-isolationism. Somebody in one of these parties is going to run on this platform."

In the Democracy Corps' Dobbs-vs.-Friedman election, Dobbs won 54% to 40%. But these results are questionable at best. The test was probably skewed by the inability of the pollsters to present the pro-globalization position as clearly as Friedman would have. "In today's world," the Friedman statement begins, "technology has enabled individuals and businesses anywhere to network and compete with each other. This presents America with new challenges, but also with new opportunities." Yecch! The results might have been different if the statement began: "Today's global market means that you pay less for almost everything you buy. This has cost some American jobs, and we have to work harder at creating new and better ones."

According to Pew, Americans believe that free-trade agreements have been good for the U.S. by a 47%-to-34% plurality. But by a thumping 69%-to-22% margin, they also believe that outsourcing has been bad. Ah, the mysteries of polling! But even this level of support for a politics of Passion is surprising. Populism has never been a majority tendency in American politics. It is very difficult to build a Passion coalition. There are profound differences between liberal and conservative populists, even if they agree on neo-isolationist, nativist and protectionist issues. A populist Democrat like Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin might lose a good chunk of Passion conservatives because he favors abortion rights; a populist Republican like Sam Brownback of Kansas might lose an equally large chunk of the Passionate majority if he didn't support a drawdown of troops in Iraq.

And then there is the pessimism problem. Populists of both strains tend to believe that the system is rigged by dark and powerful forces that prevent the little guy from getting ahead, which means they tend to be angry. They also tend to be dividers rather than uniters. Even the nice-guy populism attempted by former Senator John Edwards in the last presidential campaign had a divisive edge. His theme was "two Americas." Pessimism, anger and unsubtle divisiveness tend to be total nonstarters in American politics.

"Being optimistic is a patriotic value," says Diane Feldman. "If you are down on the United States, you are not patriotic." Finally, the Party of Passion has a reality problem. Putting up trade barriers may cause massive inflation at home and social turmoil in countries like China; a strong flow of immigrants is absolutely necessary to the economy; and a peremptory withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq might leave civil war and a safe zone for al-Qaeda operatives.

In the end, the only plausible path out of the current morass is for the Party of Sanity to regain control of the political process from the partisans now running it into the ground. But don't be surprised if people like Russ Feingold, John Edwards and Sam Brownback do much better than expected in the next presidential election -- and don't be surprised if the Sanity candidates suddenly discover their gutbucket roots.

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