America’s Populist Turn

There are so many ways to approach this question, and so much data giving you any result you want, but the latest WSJ poll seems to me to represent the collapse of popular support for 1980s Republicanism. I mean, look at the results. Hillary Clinton is the most popular public figure. Obama, at 9 percent unemployment, beats Romney by six points, up from two last month. More critically, in a populist year, the GOP looks set to nominate a candidate who makes Obama seem like Joe Biden:

47% of those surveyed said they wouldn't vote for Mr. Romney to be president. While white, working-class voters are ready to vote for an unnamed Republican over Mr. Obama by 48% to 36%, Mr. Romney finds himself deadlocked with Mr. Obama among that key demographic, 44% to 44%.

Then this:

More than three-quarters of the country says the nation's economic structure is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country. They say America needs to reduce the power of major banks and corporations, as well as end tax breaks for the affluent and corporations. Sixty percent say they strongly agree with such sentiments.

Count me among them. And note the rationale here: not equality but balance. I have no problem with substantive inequality as the result of a fair system; I have a real problem with massive inequality because of a rigged system. But, paradoxically, the populism also takes a more conservative, if not Republican, turn here:

53% of the country believes—and 33% believe strongly—that the national debt and the size of government must be cut significantly, that regulations on business should be pared back, and that taxes shouldn't be raised on anybody.

Basically Americans don't trust the government to fix the problems caused by the banks they don't trust either. Hence our impasse. But a strategy that insisted on some revenue increases from those who can most afford it, as a means of debt reduction, not redistribution, together with deep structural reforms of the tax code, strikes me as a winning option for the president.

So where is his tax reform plan? Where is his plan for drastically simplifying our insane tax code and redressing the appalling generational imbalance, as the boomers suck every last drop of money out of their kids and grandkids? Here's one thing I firmly believe: unless Obama proposes a bold reform plan for taxes, he is facing something worse than a one-term presidency. He is resisting he change he once promised to bring. Generationally, as he allows the Justice Dept to hound medical marijuana dispensaries and prevaricates on marriage equality and does little to redress the real distress of the twentysomethings who elected him, he is drifting into a de facto attack on his own coalition.

And that's politically fatal. Safety is not an option in populist times. Reform is. Yes, his record needs to be critical in assessing him; but so too must be his platform going forward. If all it is is a second stimulus, he won't get very far.