Thursday, June 28, 2007

Jim Webb and the Populist Pitch

David Ignatius on Jim Webb in today's WaPo:

Sen. Jim Webb is talking about his mother's family, which lived in hardscrabble eastern Arkansas during the Great Depression and was so poor "there was nothing -- not even money." The Democrats built their party around such people, Webb is saying, while the Republicans never cared about them.

And then the freshman senator from Virginia begins quoting some lyrics from "Song of the South," recorded by the country rock group Alabama:

"Well somebody told us Wall Street fell,
But we were so poor that we couldn't tell.
Cotton was short and the weeds were tall.
But Mr. Roosevelt's a-gonna save us all."

That kind of populist anger is part of the Democrats' past, and Webb argues that it's the party's future as well. But he worries that "the people at the top of the party don't comprehend the power of that message" and that as a result the Democrats may miss their best chance in a generation to reconnect with the American middle class.

On the issue of fairness (if not political correctness) some influential Democrats are starting to come Webb's way. In a recent paper for Rubin's own Hamilton Project, Summers and fellow economists Jason Furman and Jason Bordoff made a powerful case for restoring the progressivity of the tax system. They found that in 2004 the top one-tenth of 1 percent in America made as much before-tax income as the bottom 28 percent combined. Actual federal tax rates on that top one-tenth have fallen sharply, from 60 percent in 1960 to 34 percent in 2004.

Webb's "fairness agenda" is political dynamite, in the best and worst senses. It's a powerful rallying cry, but it could turn into protectionist demagoguery if it isn't managed carefully. But Webb has one big thing right: America is becoming a more stratified society, in which the rich receive a disproportionate share of the growth in national income.

Denouncing the fairness argument as "class warfare," as Republicans like to do, may not work this time. The Democratic candidate who gets the fairness issue right could find a new way to rally the party and the country.

A musical group that you've never heard of is The New Lost City Ramblers. Here's their lyric about Mr. Roosevelt from their album Songs From The Depression (you can hear snippets at the site):

"...Back Again (Back Again)
Back Again (Back Again)
We've got Franklin D. Roosevelt back again
Since Roosevelt's reelected
Moonshine liquor's been corrected
We've got legal wine, whiskey, beer, and gin..."

A good populist move is to let us get fucked up legally so we won't notice what's going on in the Halls of Power. Maybe this time we'll get legalized marijuana...

It's something to think about, Dems...

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