In the Arena

Two Nights at the Val-Air Ballroom

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Des Moines

The Val-Air ballroom on the west side of town is one of those great old roadhouses–the sort of place you can imagine Buddy Holly, who played his last gig in Iowa, tearing up in the 1950s. And so it was a perfect place for the two populists in the race–Mike Huckabee and John Edwards–to stage rallys, with music, on the last two nights of the campaign. The two events, so different yet so alike, said an awful lot about why populism has been such a tough sell, historically, to the American people.

Huckabee had half the crowd Edwards did, but better music–a kickass bar band called the Boogy-Woogers. The crowd seemed way-Christian and Huckabee spent most of his speech plucking their chords. It was a fairly lame effort. At other times, I’ve seen The Huckster wax eloquent about his dirt-poor background and the need to pay more attention to health care and education–and also rail against the Wall Street wing of his party (and also, brilliantly, I think–play on the antiwar, isolationist instincts of much of the right-wing populist base). The fascinating thing about Huckabee’s populism is that is based in scripture, not anger. He calls himself a Second Commandment Christian, referring to Jesus’s second–Do Unto Others–rath than Moses’s. He will cite Matthew 24 at the slightest provocation: “When you do this for the least of these, you do it for me.”

Of course, his actual program has little, if anything, to do with working people. His national sales tax–to replace the progressive income tax–is wildly regressive and most likely unenforceable (I’ve always been partial to selective sales taxes, though–like a nice stiff tax on bullets, for example). He has nothing to say, really, about the details of health insurance or alternative energy. His lack of knowledge on foreign policy is limitless.

He also did a very strange thing at the Val-Air: Usually, at these events, the featured celebrity comes out, says a few words, sings a few songs and then introduces the candidates. But Huckabee was the warmup act for Chuck Norris, whose appeal eludes me…Then Huckabee picked up a bass, and invited Joe Scarborough–!–to play along with the Boogie-Woogers. His bass playing, I must say, is far superior to Bill Clinton’s saxaphone antics. (And message to Scarborough: As harmless as it seems to get up and play music with a candidate, it’s something you just don’t do if you’re trying to be a journalist.)

Edwards: I’ve always thought the John Mellenkamp is to Bruce Springsteen as Pete Seeger was to Woody Guthrie–a less-talented wannabee. His song “This is Our Country” is an knock-off of “This Land is Your Land,” but an effective one nonetheless–especially when it comes to selling Chevy trucks. But at least the batting order at the Edwards rally was correct: Mellenkamp came out and played a decent acoustic set, then introduced the candidate, who came on stage with his entire family.

If Huckabee’s populism has its basis in scripture, Edwards is all anger, all the time…and incoherent anger at that. As I watched the sea of working-class folks hanging on his every word, I couldn’t help thinking about the scam-artists who preyed on the families of POWs and MIAs after Vietnam–selling a fantasy of hope to wounded, distraught people. The pain and anger–and fear–Edwards describes is quite real; there is a desperate need to rebalance economic policy and rebuild a social safety net appropriate to meet the volatility of the global market. But the idea that trade deals are accelerating the departure of manufacturing jobs that would be going abroad anyway is as cruel a hoax as the POW-scam artists were selling, especially now that the export market is a potential source of job growth, given the weak dollar. There is also something skeevy about demonizing the pharmaceutical companies whose drugs are keeping his wife alive. Add: There is a difference between demonizing and criticizing–Edwards lacks all sense of proportion in this.

Which is not to say that Pharma doesn’t need to reined in–the Medicare prescription-drug bill rewritten and a universal health insurance plan like Clinton’s or Edwards’ (which he no longer mentions) enacted. Edwards says, several times in his rant, “This is personal with me.” And I believe him. He mentions several times that his father–sitting there on the stage–worked for 36 years in the mill. He seems both proud and angry about that. But he never quite explains his anger. Was the company unfair to his father? (I seem to recall that his dad was promoted into the lower ranks of management.) Or is he just angry that he grew up a poor kid?

I’ve seen other populist candidates over the years. The first presidential campaign I ever covered was Fred Harris’s in 1976. And those who didn’t cloak their anger in humor–like Harris or Paul Wellstone, who would have run for President had he lived, or even Pat Buchanan, who seemed to be dishing out the vitriol tongue-slightly-in-cheek–have incinerated themselves before my eyes. Anyone who dismisses the corrosive effects of populist anger needs to read C. Vann Woodward’s Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel. Historically, populism has either been coopted by more mainstream political sorts or refueled itself on racism or antisemitism. The most successful American populists, arguably, have been aristocrats–Teddy and Franklin D. Roosevelt (with Andrew Jackson an obvious exception).

It may well be that both Huckabee and Edwards win tonight–and that will send an important message about the flagrant plutocracy of the Bush years, and a strong sign that the rightward pendulum swing that began with Reagan is over. If they do win, though, I predict that it will be the apogee of their campaigns. Populism can be sold to the American people, but only in moderation.