The pop­ulist in­sur­rec­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Twit­ter: @Mil­bank

Scenes from an in­sur­rec­tion:

In Madi­son, Wis., on Wed­nes­day, 10,000 peo­ple show up to rally for long­shot pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bernie San­ders — giv­ing the self­de­clared “demo­cratic so­cial­ist” the largest crowd any can­di­date has had in this elec­tion cy­cle. San­ders, run­ning on a shoestring and a prayer, has closed to within sin­gle dig­its of Hil­lary Clin­ton in New Hamp­shire and is surg­ing in Iowa.

In New York on Tues­day, pop­ulist Mayor Bill de Bla­sio lashes out in vit­ri­olic terms at New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo, a fel­low Demo­crat, ac­cus­ing him of “games” and po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated “re­venge.” De Bla­sio and other Democrats blast Cuomo’s han­dling of hous­ing, immigration, the min­i­mum wage and ed­u­ca­tion.

In Washington last month, an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Democrats — 158 of 186 in the House and 31 of 44 in the Se­nate — op­pose Pres­i­dent Obama on free­trade leg­is­la­tion. Obama pre­vails in the vote af­ter fail­ing in a sim­i­lar vote ear­lier in the month, but the episode leaves the pres­i­dent at­tempt­ing to re­pair a deep rift with his fel­low Democrats by cham­pi­oning overtime rules fa­vored by unions.

These are not iso­lated events. To­gether, they show anew how the pop­ulist move­ment is as­cen­dant within the Demo­cratic Party, and they con­firm that the bal­ance of power has shifted. Clin­ton, who re­ports rais­ing $45 mil­lion since launch­ing her cam­paign in April, will al­most cer­tainly beat the up­start 73yearold with the crazy white hair. Obama won on trade. But Clin­ton and Obama are, to bor­row a fa­vorite phrase of the pres­i­dent, on the wrong side of history. As I’ve noted, the coun­try is trend­ing in a more lib­eral di­rec­tion, and a grow­ing pro­por­tion of Democrats are hard­core lib­er­als.

There are var­i­ous causes, but the change is likely in part a re­ac­tion to the tea party and to the Repub­li­can Party’s swing to the right. Democrats so far have shown less in­cli­na­tion to eat their own, but there is a real pos­si­bil­ity that in­tra­party frat­ri­cide will break out if Clin­ton and the rest of the Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment don’t coopt the ris­ing pop­ulist move­ment. In NewYork, for ex­am­ple, there is al­ready talk of a lib­eral pri­mary chal­lenge to Cuomo if he chooses to run again in 2018.

That the San­ders cam­paign has caught fire is a sur­prise to just about ev­ery­body, not least the can­di­date him­self, who had his doubts. The Brook­lyn­born Vermonter with a di­dac­tic style lacks the fire and charisma of Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren(DMass.), who­chose not to run. Buthis call for huge in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing and tax­ing the rich has caught the mo­ment just right, even if San­ders him­self is an im­per­fect ves­sel.

In May, Clin­ton had a 31point lead in New Hamp­shire over her near­est po­ten­tial Demo­cratic com­peti­tor in the WMUR/CNN poll; now she leads San­ders by only eight points, which, be­cause of the poll’s method­ol­ogy, is a sta­tis­ti­cal tie. In Iowa, like­wise, Clin­ton had a 45point lead over San­ders in May, ac­cord­ing to a Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity poll. Now her lead has shrunk to 19 points.

The pop­ulist push­back that pro­pels San­ders’s un­ex­pected suc­cess also can be seen in the in­cen­di­ary re­marks of New York’s top pop­ulist, de Bla­sio, who took the ex­tra­or­di­nary step of call­ing jour­nal­ists to City Hall to de­nounce the gover­nor. He called Cuomo’s ac­tions “not any­thing like ac­cept­able gov­ern­ment prac­tice,” ac­cord­ing to the New York Times.

At the heart of the crit­i­cism is a sense that Cuomo, though the son of the late lib­eral lion Mario Cuomo, was in­suf­fi­ciently pure in his ide­ol­ogy and too will­ing to strike deals with Repub­li­cans. Sev­eral New York lib­er­als have be­gun rum­bles of a pri­mary chal­lenge to Cuomo — an ef­fort that would be like the con­ser­va­tive ef­forts to purge the Repub­li­can Party of RINOs (Repub­li­cans in Name Only) in re­cent elec­tions.

Obama, too, has been up­ended by the pop­ulist wave. Though he even­tu­ally pre­vailed in the “fast­track” trade vote, he had noth­ing like the sup­port Bill Clin­ton got when he pushed through the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment with half of Se­nate Democrats and 40 per­cent of House Democrats. Lib­er­als called that a vic­tory. “This isn’t 1993, and this is not Bill Clin­ton’s Demo­cratic Party,” Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.), who led Demo­cratic op­po­si­tion in the House, wrote in the Huff­in­g­ton Post on Thurs­day.

Bill Clin­ton re­shaped the party with mod­er­ate “New Democrats,” but the new New Democrats look more like the old. Hil­lary Clin­ton, no­tably, sided with lib­er­als on the trade leg­is­la­tion, which is smart: If she doesn’t want to get tram­pled by pop­ulists on the march, she’ll need to grab a ba­ton and pre­tend to be the drum ma­jor.

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