"The biggest issue in this election is jobs and economic security," Howard Dean said in Urbandale, Iowa, a few days after Christmas. "Iraq is an important issue, but it's not as important as jobs." This seemed to be the sort of thing Dean practically never does--a descent into standard party cant. Democrats are almost always depressed about the economy and rarely obsessed by foreign policy. It was doubly odd because Iraq has been Dean's signature issue. He would probably be an asterisk today if he hadn't stepped out from the pack and opposed the war. And the election of 2004 is bound to be, in the end, a referendum on George W. Bush's historic pre-emptive decision to route the war on terrorism through Baghdad.
But Dean isn't really talking about jobs, even when he says, "Let's talk about jobs," which he does, first and foremost, in every stump speech. Very quickly he turns to pummeling the President about "$3 trillion worth of tax cuts for his wealthy contributors." Indeed, "jobs"--shorthand for the 3 million jobs lost during the Bush Administration--turns out to be camouflage for an even hotter topic: the rampaging privileges that the corporate elites have won during the past three years. This is Dean's real theme, a unified-field theory of Republican depravity. Jobs, the elderly, the economy, budget discipline, the environment--all have suffered because of Bush's crony capitalism. Dean recently produced a fabulous piece of propaganda, a leaflet called Common Sense for a New Century, after Tom Paine's famous Revolutionary War tract. "We face a growing threat to our liberty and justice in America today," he writes. "Thomas Jefferson and James Madison spoke of the fear that economic power would one day seize political power. That fear is now being realized. Under the Bush Administration, pharmaceutical companies draft our Medicare laws. Oil executives sit in the Vice President's office and write energy bills ..." And on and on.
This is classic populism--"the people versus the powerful"--and four years after Al Gore unsuccessfully ran on that slogan, populism is at the heart of not just Dean's campaign but almost every Democratic presidential candidacy. Senator John Edwards puts the case most elegantly: "This is an Administration that rewards wealth, not work." Dick Gephardt is the protectionist tribune of the antique industrial unions. Aristocratic John Kerry rails effectively against "Benedict Arnold" corporations that set up headquarters overseas to avoid paying taxes at home. Even mild, moderate Joe Lieberman has a tax plan to soak the rich and further reduce taxes on the middle class. There may be some desperation in all this. Bush has taken issue after issue away from the Democrats. He has "reformed" education and given a prescription-drug benefit to the elderly--fairly sketchy initiatives, but most voters don't read policy papers. The economy seems poised to recover. And the President may even be moving quietly toward depriving the Democrats of their most popular foreign-policy complaint--that he hasn't involved the U.N. and NATO in Iraq. (Both may well be involved in the transition to a new Iraqi government this spring.)