Palin Goes Global

Populism is back, and not just in America. It will fan out only if mainstream political parties manage to improve the economy.

President Obama is in hot water again. And, once more, the problem isn't with the Republican right, but his (nominal) allies on the left. One of the peculiarities of the Obama presidency, as opposed to the campaign, is that he gets beaten up as much, if not more, by the Left than the Right, which views him as something of an apostate.

The indictment goes something like this: He ramped up the war in Afghanistan. He didn't close Guantánamo. And he's too close to Wall Street.

That last charge just got a boost from Obama himself, who told Bloomberg Business Week that he didn't "begrudge" the multi-million dollar bonuses that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon or other financial potentates are accruing. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman promptly called Obama clueless. The White House is backtracking.

But is Obama really clueless? No, he isn't. The blunt fact is that these bonuses are peanuts compared to the bigger economic issues facing the country. Yes, they enrage populists, who seem to think that it would be better if Wall Street took a dive, or didn't exist-ignoring the fact that much of the country's wealth is tied up in pension funds. You know, the things that help ensure the financial security of middle-class Americans when they retire. The envy and hatred directed toward Wall Street may be emotionally satisfying, but doesn't make for sound policy. But that doesn't mean it will go away.

As the 2010 campaign heats up, the Democrats are doing everything they can to reposition themselves. If the Republicans lost their brand as the party of fiscal responsibility, the Democrats squandered theirs as the voice of the working stiff. Now they want it back from the Tea Party, a group that poses a problem for both the Democrats and Republicans.

Today's Washington Post-ABC News poll says that two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with both major political parties. It also indicates that some of the shine has rubbed off of Sarah Palin: "although Palin is a tea party favorite, her potential as a presidential hopeful takes a severe hit in the survey. Fifty-five percent of Americans have unfavorable views of her, while the percentage holding favorable views has dipped to 37, a new low in Post-ABC polling."

But David Broder says today that Palin is the real thing. He points out that she has the common touch that someone like Mitt Romney will never possess. Palin told the Tea Party convention, "I want to speak up for the American people and say: No, we really do have some good common-sense solutions. I can be a messenger for that. Don't have to have a title to do it." As Sam Tanenhaus pointed out in an illuminating examination of Palin in a recent New Yorker, it's no good saying that Palin is ignorant of political issues. Ignorance is her credential. She flaunts it. And, as her speech before the tea-party adherents demonstrated, she does it surpassingly well.

The truth is that new Palins may well pop up around the globe. Populism is back, and not just in the United States. The truth is that dissatisfaction with political parties is hardly confined to America. Iran is in revolt against a loathsome dictatorship, which is desperately hyping its nuclear program in order to retain some kind of legitimacy. Venezuela is chafing at Hugo Chávez's pseudo-populist regime. Germany views all of its political parties, apart from a Far Left one, as essentially cut from the same cloth-protecting their own interests as opposed to those of citizens.

But it's the economy that will determine the future of the latest populist surge. Historically, third-party movements have flamed out in America. If the economy improves in the next six months, Obama will be hailed as a political genius, one who managed to save his party's fortunes at the last moment. If the economy doesn't improve, then the Democrats may well suffer a brutal loss. But Americans like comebacks, and Obama is poised for one. Who will begrudge him it? Perhaps only the Left will be more disconcerted by it than the Right.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.