Populist Stirrings
Jude Wanniski
February 28, 2000


With all the surprising developments in the presidential race this year, the most striking is the great interest the electorate is showing in the process. There are big turnouts everywhere as people who were not expected to vote have been stirred to participate. This suggests the voters believe the campaigns -- especially on the Republican side -- give them a genuine opportunity to affect the fundamental direction of national policy. In the last three races -- 1988, 1992 and 1996 -- the only time when the electorate showed this kind of enthusiasm for a shift in the status quo was in the spring of 1992, when Ross Perot first burst upon the scene. If you recall, before Perot had spent a dime on his own behalf, he was running ahead of Vice President George Bush and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in the public-opinion polls. There were spontaneous rallies of Perot-for-President enthusiasts in hundreds of communities across the country -- the fervor ending only when Perot's inexperience as a politician showed itself. While it lasted, though, it was even hotter than the kind of populism President Reagan engendered in his 1984 landslide re-election. There was genuine affection for Reagan at the grass roots as he swept every state but Minnesota, which gave its favorite son Walter Mondale a narrow victory. That was a totally different kind of landslide than President Nixon's 1972 sweep of every state but Massachusetts, which the electorate gave grudgingly and without affection. Reagan had been given a Republican Senate as a sign of the electorate's confidence in him, and a House still controlled by Democrats, but with a conservative majority. Nixon was given no such leeway in Congress.

There is not yet any sign of genuine affection for Arizona Senator John McCain and I doubt there ever will be. He's more Nixonian than Reaganaut. But thus far he is being generously rewarded for pushing the envelope in the direction of reform -- simply by speaking his mind. This is what brought a record turnout in Minnesota for Jesse Ventura in 1998. The voters saw in Ventura an earthy fellow who was committed to speaking his mind instead of mouthing a partisan script, which meant the possible benefits of change he might produce outweighed the risks associated with his lack of experience and executive skills. What I believe the voters have been looking for these last dozen years is a basic political realignment that would enable the two major parties once again to become majority parties. Ventura is exactly right when he says both the Democratic and the Republican parties are minority parties, in that only 20% of the electorate strongly identifies with either. The remaining 60% are independent and really are not happy with the lack of choice being served up by the Establishment.

By pushing and shoving, first this way, then that, the voters have been educating the candidates the same way a marketplace forces producers of dog food to continue changing the formula until the dogs will eat it. At this point, it still is impossible to predict whether Bush or McCain will be the GOP nominee, because they still are working on the dog food. It may be June 6 before a decisive vote produces a majority of delegates for one or the other, with New Jerseyans perhaps getting that opportunity. Both men know the name of the game is "Reform," but neither of them yet have done much more than play with the word. McCain of course is identified with the kind of "campaign finance reform" espoused by the Democrats and organized labor, but other than that, he is as fake a reformer as Bush. Note that McCain for the first time now is running tv spots promising to "tear up the 44,000 page federal tax code," which took me by surprise, until I found him explaining that all he has in mind is tearing out the tax loopholes in the code and applying the savings to the national debt. The 44,000 pages would become 43,000 pages.

This kind of "straight talk" is what we could expect from a McCain presidency, I'm afraid. The presence of former New Hampshire GOP Senator Warren Rudman at McCain's elbow is enough to scare me away permanently. Rudman is the most unpleasant man I have ever observed in national politics, which would not be such a problem if he were pointed in the right direction. He is the chairman of the Concord Coalition, though, which practically was established to fight supply-side economics and Reaganesque tax cuts. A self-proclaimed expert on national security, Rudman also is chairman of the President's bipartisan Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He also is part of the right-wing Jewish cabal around McCain, who are eager to get to the Oval Office so they can step up the bombing of Iraq, "roll back" Libya and the other Rogue States, and fortify Taiwan with all the weapons it needs. Rudman has the nerve to label the Christian Conservatives "bigots" for opposing Colin Powell in 1996 because of his pro-choice position on abortion. He now smells "anti-Semitism" because the "bigots" have questioned his political intolerance. In a McCain administration, Rudman would be Attorney General and probably the most powerful man in the Cabinet. Investor's Business Daily on Friday noted that McCain's chief advisor on economics is (shudder) Harvard's Gregory Mankiw, a deep-dyed Keynesian.

Republican regulars still are shying from McCain and sticking with Bush, but as the campaign unfolds, the Texas governor seems more and more hapless in big-time, hardball politics. The high price he paid to win the South Carolina primary two weeks ago continues to dog him, and will until he can re-establish his manhood. He continues to strike me as a boy playing with the big kids, never more than in his apology yesterday to Cardinal O'Connor and the Catholic Church for having spoken at Bob Jones University early this month without condemning some anti-Catholic remarks made many years ago by the founder. The slugging going on between Bush and McCain is creating interest in the race, but is not likely to lead to a Bush-McCain ticket or a McCain-Bush ticket.

There remains speculation about Ross Perot inviting McCain to be the Reform Party candidate if he wins the GOP nomination. Having a number of times publicly called Perot "nuttier than a fruitcake," McCain probably is not holding his breath. Pat Buchanan is almost sure to be the Reform nominee. Most people think Buchanan would do better if Bush and Gore were the nominees of the majors. He might get more votes, but these would probably put Gore in the Oval Office and also put Hillary Clinton in the Senate. If McCain were the nominee, Buchanan would have a better chance of peeling away voters from both of the majors. At the very least, the national electorate would get even more of an opportunity to push and shove right down to the wire, coaxing the eventual winner toward a mandate that would have to be superior to anything we see at the moment.