A top Democratic strategist is criticizing a central theme of Senator John Kerry’s campaign for President: populist attacks on “special interests.”
Harold Ickes, the combative operative who steered Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, took exception to the trademark appeal of one of Mr. Kerry’s top advisers, Bob Shrum.
“I don’t think the ‘special interest’ message cuts,” Mr. Ickes told The Observer . “I don’t think people have any interest in that.”
In his most dominant showing of the primary season, Mr. Kerry took just over half of all votes cast in Virginia. He was trailed by Senator John Edwards who, with 27 percent of the vote, was was the only other candidate to make it into the double digits. With 83 percent of precincts reporting in the Tennessee primary, Mr. Kerry led with 41 percent of votes, with Mr. Edwards in second with 26 percent and General Wesley Clark just behind him in third.
Speaking at his Fairfax, Va., headquarters, Mr. Kerry looked past his primary challengers to attack President Bush’s management of the economy and the military. He didn’t use the phrase “special interests” – which one advisor said will continue to be a campaign theme — but he included his populist call to “repeal every tax break and every loophole that rewards any Benedict Arnold CEO or corporation for sending American jobs overseas.”
Mr. Kerry’s emerging campaign strategy took on more urgency on Feb. 10, as the Senator established his ability to win in the South with convincing primary victories in the Virginia and Tennessee.
Even as Mr. Kerry’s rhetoric brings in liberal refugees from the sinking Dean campaign, the Shrum-style populism is raising concerns among some moderate Democrats. Mr. Ickes’ opinion matters more than most. The strategist, the son of a key figure in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, is the president of the Media Fund, an organization created to steer more than $100 million in unregulated contributions toward Democratic candidates. Starting this spring, and throughout the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Mr. Ickes is likely to play a key role in defining the Democrats’ image with a barrage of television advertising. Federal law, however, bars him from coordinating his appeal with Mr. Kerry’s official campaign.
Mr. Ickes spoke to The Observer after a meeting of his organization in Manhattan in early February. He didn’t return calls seeking elaboration on his comments.
The gap between Mr. Ickes and Mr. Shrum reopens a rift among Democratic strategists that was exposed during Al Gore’s campaign four years ago. Departing from Mr. Clinton’s “third way” centrism, Mr. Gore-on Mr. Shrum’s advice-defined his campaign against George W. Bush in stark terms: “They’re for the powerful,” he told the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. “We’re for the people.”
Mr. Gore’s campaign reflected an approach that Mr. Shrum became known for after helping Richard Gephardt win the 1988 Iowa caucuses. Then, the bogeyman was “the Establishment.”
Observers have noticed Mr. Shrum’s voice in Mr. Kerry’s campaign. The Senator, for instance, pledges to “take on the powerful interests that stand in your way.”
Sound familiar? In his acceptance speech in 2000, Mr. Gore told Democrats: “So often, powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seem stacked against you.”
One former campaign aide to Mr. Gore said he worries that Mr. Kerry will make the same mistakes. “John Kerry’s running the Al Gore campaign-this is the exact same shit,” he said.
Critics say that this kind of populism is a formula for defeat that stretches back to the turn of the 20th century, when William Jennings Bryan lost three Presidential elections opposing elites, imperialism and the gold standard.
“What elections have shown historically is that populism gets you to 45 percent, but it basically prevents you from getting above that,” said a strategist for one of other candidates for the Democratic nomination.
Mr. Shrum didn’t return a call seeking his response to Mr. Ickes’ criticism. But a top adviser to Mr. Kerry, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, said that both the message and the times have changed.
Mr. Kerry, the adviser said, isn’t talking about class war-an accusation that dogged Mr. Gore.
This is “a populism based on fairness, not on wealth-a values-oriented populism,” the adviser said. Mr. Kerry, he said, will be stressing the inequality of access, not of outcome. So don’t expect a reprise of Mr. Gore’s blanket attacks on privilege.
But, the adviser said, these are “different times” compared with the boom years leading up to 2000. Then, a rising tide was lifting all boats-or most of them, anyway. Now, a wave of corporate scandals has focused public attention on issues like executive compensation. Then, there was something a bit surreal about an incumbent Vice President railing against “the powerful.” Now, Democrats are in exile and accusing the Republican incumbent of helping out cronies at companies like Halliburton.
Some centrist, Clintonite strategists are buying that argument. The quasi-official New Democrat movement, centered around the Democratic Leadership Council in Washington, has embraced Mr. Kerry after working to sink the campaign of Vermont Governor Howard Dean.
“George Bush has made populists of us all,” said Will Marshall, the president of the movement’s think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute. “There is an underlying reality here, which is that this administration has been extraordinarily solicitous of large corporate interests.”
But Mr. Ickes isn’t the only Democrat who’s worried.
“There really is a sense that George Bush is selling out to big corporations,” said Kenneth Baer, who was Mr. Gore’s chief speechwriter and served as an adviser to the campaign of Senator Joseph Lieberman until earlier this year. “The trick is to point that out and hit him on it without looking shrill, without looking pessimistic or negative, and without being unnecessarily divisive. That’s what Bill Clinton did, and I think John Edwards’ stump speech does that.”
While Mr. Ickes worries that the “special interest” attacks go down the wrong track, other consultants say that Mr. Kerry isn’t taking his assault on “special interests” far enough.
“I have a lot of respect for Harold Ickes, but his media operation is partially being funded by some special interests,” said John Weaver, a Republican turned Democrat who advised Arizona Senator John McCain during his 2000 campaign for President. “If John Kerry broadens the message to include those special interests that fall under the Democratic umbrella, it would be even more powerful.”
Follow Ben Smith via RSS.