- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Populist — Attuned to the need of “the people;” now used with a connotation of old-fashioned radicalism; a liberalism deeply rooted in U.S. history.
William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary, fifth edition, 2008.

Populism is alive and well in the “People’s House.”

A group of nearly two dozen House Democrats last week revived the party’s moribund Populist Caucus, vowing to push aggressively for a broad “middle-class agenda” of good jobs, tougher corporate regulation, progressive tax cuts, universal health care and a deep suspicion of traditional trade deals.

“I know if William Jennings Bryan were alive today, he would be standing up with us,” said Rep. Michael Arcuri of New York, vice chairman of the Populist Caucus. “The fight today is not just for the farmers but for the expanded middle class, the folks who don’t have a real voice in government today.”

The group, which includes a number of the party’s rising stars from the Class of ‘06, which helped give Democrats control of the House, draws members from across the party spectrum, from the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs to the liberal Progressive Caucus.

Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky said a common motivation for the junior members joining the Populist Caucus is the sense that “the economy is not working for everybody.”

“We are very concerned about how the principles of economic justice are being thwarted by unbridled economic power,” he said.

Caucus chairman Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa said the group “intends to be a force to be reckoned with inside the Democratic caucus.”

Mr. Braley said a previous Populist Caucus, born in the farm crisis of the early 1980s, proved a political steppingstone for a number of prominent Democratic figures just elected to the House, including former Vice President Al Gore and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. Several members cited the late liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, who died in a plane crash while campaigning in 2002, as a political role model.

Populism, broadly defined, has been a potent but never dominant strain in American politics for more than a century.

Bryan championed a number of causes — women’s suffrage, progressive income taxes, the direct election of senators — long before they were adopted. However, he fell short in three tries for the White House, was an ineffectual secretary of state, and ended his career in ignominy at the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial.”

Mr. Arcuri said the new caucus wants to promote a “21st-century populism.” His own central New York district, he noted, includes a number of colleges and professionals, but also casino workers and custodians who work at the colleges.

Asked if President Obama is a populist, Mr. Braley hedges.

“I think in his style of communicating, he is definitely a populist,” he said, “but a lot remains to be seen.”

Mr. Obama “is described a lot of times as post-partisan,” Mr. Braley said. “We, on the other hand, are decidedly partisan.”

The caucus may have its biggest impact on trade issues as the Obama administration tries to develop its trade agenda. The new populists are deeply skeptical of the free-trade model adopted by Democratic and Republican administrations of the recent past.

Populist Caucus members say they will demand that conditions on labor rights, environmental protection and other “fair trade” principles be incorporated in future trade deals.

“We want to have a seat at the table when the next-generation trade deals are being formalized,” said Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont. “We don’t just want a piece of paper. We want tangible proof that our workers’ rights are respected.”

Rep. Betty Sutton of Ohio, a vice chair of the caucus, called the charge that populists are trade protectionists “a deflecting tactic to avoid fixing a broken system.”

“For too long progressive trade policy has been shut down by name-calling,” she said.

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