Welcome Back Henry Howell!

David Urban has a very interesting comment on my post about the speeches at the JJ Dinner. He wrote that reading about Creigh Deeds’ denunciation of corporate greed was a flashback to the 1970’s when he listened to a populist Democratic candidate annnounce that “I’m Henry Howell. I’m running for Governor and I’ll keep the ‘big boys’ honest.”  Urban goes on to say that “populist themes play well when the economy is bad and our current economic downturn nationally features many well publicized instances of corporate greed run amok.”

Urban makes an excellent point.

Since George Allen’s landslide victory in Virginia, populist sentiments have primarily been voiced by anti-tax Republicans who have positioned themselves on the side of a public frustrated by high taxes and government spending. The apex of Republican populism occurred in 1997 when Jim Gilmore’s “No Car Tax” pledge swept through the Virginia gubernatorial campaign like a prairie fire. Since that time, GOP anti-tax populists have retained considerable influence in the House but have struggled in statewide elections against Democrats who have simultaneously promsed to keep taxes low (sometimes even pledging not to raise taxes) but also to provide needed educational and infrastructure improvements.

In recent years, however, Virginia has seen a revival of the Democratic version of populism, one that focuses on the presumed way that the activities of  large corporations and big businesses stifle the aspirations of ordinary people. Senator Jim Webb initiated this with his assault on income inequality and the growing disparity between CEO pay and the income of the average worker in his 2006 Senate campaign against George Allen.  (It was always fascinating to watch Mark Warner’s body language whenever he was on the same stage with Webb in 2006 and Webb would begin to pump up the crowd with his Howell-like attacks on CEO compensation.)

And it is starting to play a signficiant role in the 2009 gubernatorial primary. McAuliffe is positioning himself as a businessman who knows how to attract jobs to the state and make life better for ordinary Virginians. And while all three candidates lavish praise on Warner, Deeds and Moran are adopting significant features of Webb’s populist message, positioning themselves as “fighters” for average men and women and implying that McAuliffe is looking to utilize his wealth to purchase the nomination.

For more than 30 years, most Democrats deliberately distanced themselves from a Howell-like message, concerned that it would drive away potential funders and turn off suburban voters. Its revival in 2009 tells us something about how McAuliffe has altered the dynamic of the Virginia race and how at least some Democrats are responding to rising public frustration with corporate bailouts.

How this revival will play with voters adds another element of uncertainty to an unpredictable political environment.

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