The politics of populism

In this year's most competitive Senate races, suddenly everyone's a populist.

By Arianna Huffington

Published September 24, 2002 10:16PM (EDT)

Only a tone-deaf politician could fail to realize that there is much political hay to be made from the current bumper crop of corporate scandals. So, with control of the Senate at stake, candidates -- especially in tight races like those in Minnesota, Missouri and Texas -- are slipping into the reformer's mantle and doing all they can to squeeze their way into the crowded populist tent.

In Minnesota -- where Democrat Paul Wellstone, the incumbent, is being challenged by Republican Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul -- the candidates are battling to see which can paint himself as more pro-little guy. It's become Populist vs. Populist. Or Populist vs. Populist vs. Populist, if you factor in Minnesota Green Party candidate and potential spoiler Ed McGaa.

It's a stance that comes naturally to Wellstone, who since 1990 has been the Senate's reigning crusader against corporate influence over public policy. His latest TV spots legitimately portray him as "one of the toughest watchdogs in Washington," a politician who has consistently "stood up to the most powerful interests to fight for people." "You've got to put people first," says Wellstone in the ad. "You've got to know whose side you're on."

Hopping on the populist bandwagon, albeit a bit less gracefully, is Coleman, whose campaign pronouncements are peppered with rhetoric that could have been torn from a Eugene Debs stump speech: "Consumers and employees need the protection of the law against the greed and arrogance of the rich and powerful." Coleman has also tried to align himself with the cause of cheated investors: "I was a prosecutor and I have looked into the eyes of people who lost their life savings to white-collar corporate crime. There should be no mercy for perpetrators of that crime."

The two candidates have repeatedly crossed swords over who has the sleaziest supporters -- always a recipe for real mudslinging, especially in a close race -- each attacking the other for accepting donations from people associated with scandal-plagued companies. Call it Guilt by Contribution. Wellstone's camp has slammed Coleman for raking in nearly $20,000 from corporations under investigation by Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission, including Citigroup, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Reliant Energy, and for pocketing contributions from individuals with ties to WorldCom, Global Crossing, and Arthur Andersen.

Coleman has returned fire by touting the fact that, as a gesture of contrition, he donated the money he got from Global Crossing executives to, among other charities, the National Latino Peace Officers Association -- and by challenging Wellstone to do the same with money he received from Leo Hindery, the former CEO of Global Crossing.

Corporate connections have also played a central role in the Missouri Senate race, where Democrat Jean Carnahan, who currently holds the seat, is locked in a tight contest with Republican former congressman Jim Talent.

Carnahan and her supporters have drawn blood by playing up Talent's most recent gig as a moderately talented $230,000-a-year corporate lobbyist, and by attacking his pro-fat-cat voting record while serving in the House -- which includes his support of a federal loophole allowing super-rich Americans to renounce their citizenship as a way to avoid paying taxes. It doesn't help Talent's cause that during his time in Congress he was part of a group of young congressmen who dubbed themselves the "Lobster Tails" -- renowned for dining out at fancy restaurants on lobbyists' expense accounts.

In the finest tradition of American politics and schoolyards everywhere, Talent has responded to the attacks on his career as a lobbyist by finding a lobbyist of his own to smear -- making mud pies out of the fact that Roy Temple, Carnahan's chief of staff, worked as a lobbyist for MCI during the time it was acquired by the sleazoids at WorldCom.

Talent's buddies in the Missouri GOP have also joined the fray, running TV ads attacking Carnahan as a hypocrite in populist's clothing for having accepted campaign cash from executives at Global Crossing -- including the ubiquitous Hindery -- "who bankrupted the company and cost the employees their jobs and life savings." The commercials fail to mention, however, that the Republican Senatorial Committee, which helped pay for the ad, also took money from Global Crossing. Maybe irony didn't score well in the committee's focus-group tests.

Deep in the heart of Texas, where Democrat Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas, and Republican John Cornyn, the state's attorney general, are vying to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Phil Gramm, the populist parade is also underway -- with both candidates stumbling into potholes they've dug for themselves.

After all, it's pretty hard to attack your opponent for being in the pocket of corrupt corporations, as both men have done, when you yourself are, well, let's just say more than a little familiar with the linty interior of those very same cash-lined pockets. I mean, how ludicrous is it to see Kirk trying to capitalize on the fact that Cornyn accepted $193,000 from Enron over the course of his political career when Kirk himself spent much of the early 1990s lobbying for clients that included energy, tobacco and automobile companies -- and fighting against such consumer-friendly causes as cleaner-burning cars and harsher penalties for businesses selling cigarettes to minors? It was no less ridiculous watching Cornyn trying to earn brownie points by donating an amount equal to his Enron haul to a fund that supports vanquished employees of the fallen energy giant -- but only after months of steadfastly refusing to do so.

Kirk even gave a populist twist to the hot issue of invading Iraq when he questioned Cornyn's full-throated support for sending troops, on the grounds that those on the front lines of the fight would be disproportionately ethnic and poor. "I would be curious to see," Kirk said, "if we would go to war without any thought of loss if the first half-million kids to go came from families who made $1 million."

I would bet we wouldn't. As for me, I will be curious to see whether the outpouring of populist rhetoric from Campaign 2002 will translate into substantive populist reforms when the 108th Congress convenes in January 2003.

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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Populism Texas U.s. Senate