Clinton and McCain Are Born Again as Populist Candidates

The campaign zeitgeist these days is all about oozing empathy for the little guy.

Hillary Clinton chatting about gas prices in South Bend, Ind.

Hillary Clinton chatting about gas prices in South Bend, Ind.

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In the alice-in-wonderland world that has become presidential politics lately, it has come to this: Hillary Clinton, who has resided in a chauffeur-driven bubble for the past 20 years, is portraying herself as a man of the people. Barack Obama, raised by a single mother and who paid off his college loans just a few years ago, is the elite snob. And John McCain, married to a beer heiress, charges that Obama is "insensitive to the hopes and dreams and ambitions" of millions of Americans.

Forget Iraq, at least for now. The campaign zeitgeist these days is all about oozing empathy for the little guy. It's enough to make Clinton down shots of Crown Royal or gas up a car while Obama goes bowling and fondly recalls the Jell-O molds of his youth. And why not display a little compassion? Voters are worried about losing their homes and their jobs while paying more for fuel and food. So the politicians, ever the lagging indicators, are full of proposals geared to soothe the weary and placate the anxious. They have been born again—as populists.

Not that there's anything wrong with helping Americans in troubled times. Kudos to President Bush and Congress, for instance, for quickly passing an economic stimulus plan. And Team McCain gets an A in creative populist pander for its summer-gas-tax-holiday proposal. But whatever happened to straight talk about its cost ($10 billion from the already strapped federal highway fund) and what it would really save ($40 per car)? Not to be outdone, Clinton pounced on the plan, one-upping McCain by saying she would pay for it all with a tax on the bad guys—the oil companies. Such perfect populist symmetry. Only Obama and the president resisted the gimmick, Bush by refusing to comment (and thereby not kick McCain) and Obama by stating the obvious: While it all sounds good, it will save little and do nothing about the bigger problems of oil consumption and imports. "This isn't an idea designed to get you through the summer," Obama argued. "It's designed to get them through an election." Shocking.

It may be that when we look back at the arc of this campaign, we will see these past few weeks as the tipping point, the time when this very different election became very ordinary, replete with the usual posturing. After all, as Democratic pollster Mark Mellman points out, one of the better predictors of how people will vote is how they answer this question: Who cares the most about people like me? "Everybody is struggling to win that vote," he says. In that fight, we end up with what former Bill Clinton policy adviser William Galston calls "our lowest-common-denominator democracy," which foments phony populism—especially when about 80 percent of the voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Bush told the nation last week that "if there was a magic wand to wave, I'd be waving it." You bet he would—if he were running again.

The way things were. In this world of economic anxiety, there is one thing a politician cannot be, and that's out of touch. It is why Bush the Elder was skewered in 1988 for not knowing the price of a gallon of milk. And it is why Obama's remarks about small-town bitterness came as a gift to his opponents. They provided fodder for an easy and damaging story line about his elite tastes and appeal, which helped fuel his loss to Clinton among important lower-income white voters in Pennsylvania. As economic fears mount, Obama's simple message of change suddenly seems more complex, even threatening. Yes, voters want to change Washington. But at the same time, some folks (especially older ones) want to go back to the way things were. Most of all, says one Democratic strategist, "change may now seem too vague and irrelevant to people suffering economically. They want action."

Enter Hillary Clinton, working gal. Forget the message about experience, about those years close to power in the White House. Now the graduate of Wellesley and Yale Law is a 9-to-5-er who feels your pain at the pump and at work. She's mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, and she's fighting for you. "She only found her message when it became clear she needed it," says an unaffiliated Democratic strategist. Hey, answering the red phone at 3 a.m. is also working the night shift, right?