The Democrats Are Out To Get You
By Bill Powell

(FORTUNE Magazine) – One of the certainties--hell, it may be the only certainty--coming out of the first two Democratic contests this year is that the candidates are unanimous about one thing. They know who the enemies are. First, of course, it's the incumbent, the man whose job they all seek--President George W. Bush. The other enemy is ... well, actually, the other enemy is ... you.

That's you as in corporate America. You're "special interests," you understand (every major candidate uses the phrase); you own the White House and Congress lock, stock, and barrel. You may even work for a "Benedict Arnold" company, as Senator John Kerry starts his riff on the stump, sending your "headquarters to Bermuda and jobs to China'' (as Howard Dean finishes his). Woe unto you if you work for the oil industry, the pharmaceutical industry, for insurance companies or a health-care provider, or for Wal-Mart. Sometimes, to hear the Democratic presidential candidates, you almost seem like a bigger threat to America than Osama bin Laden. You sure get mentioned more often than he does.

Populism--and more recently faux populism--is a staple of American politics. From Al Gore, in his strange acceptance speech four years ago warning of "powerful forces" stacked against the little guy, all the way back to William Jennings Bryan and his "Cross of Gold" speech in 1896 ("the humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error"), David vs. Goliath is a familiar political theme. Its most strident form is usually practiced by bumptious third-party candidates with little to lose (think Ross Perot and George Wallace). What's interesting about this year's election is that all the plausible Democratic candidates--not to mention the formerly plausible Howard Dean--have a heavy dose of big-business bashing in their standard stump speeches. That means, simply, that those lines have resonance, at least among potential primary voters. "The polling for all of us is showing the same thing," says a senior campaign operative for one of the Democrats. "People think that this guy [Bush] is the CEO's President. He does whatever CEOs want, and doesn't give a damn about the consequences. That's why the candidates all sound similar themes--because those fears are real."

It's easy for GOP operatives, with an eye on the fall elections, to dismiss the political effectiveness of this stuff. They can just start reciting statistics. Housing starts at a 20-year high. The combined value of homes and stocks now just a shade below their all-time high in 2000. More than 50% of the voting age population own stocks. A rising tide lifts all boats--and squashes the allure of populism.

There are, moreover, reasons to suspect that the populism being peddled this year is mainly rhetorical, not real. It's fine to say, as all the Democrats do, that they'd change the tax code to prevent companies from getting any benefit from having their headquarters in Bermuda. But how many "Benedict Arnold" companies are there out there? Of the FORTUNE Global 500, all of three are incorporated in Bermuda. And when John Edwards talks about "two Americas," one in which the "rich" get the finest health care and everyone else has to go to an HMO--or wherever their insurance company tells them to go--the questions just keep on coming: Isn't the point of "managed care" to try to restrain the overall cost of health care? Or, as Edwards seems to imply, should everyone have access to the finest health care available all the time, no matter what it costs? And if so, who pays for that? The government? In any event, the idea that allegedly evil HMOs and insurance companies aren't going to continue to play a huge role in health care is fantasy, no matter who's in the White House.

Still, even if the populism on the stump is somewhat phony, the polling results that the Democrats are getting isn't. There is some real danger here for Bush, given that nearly every stance the administration has taken on regulatory and environmental issues follows the Bush-does-as-big-business-wants rule. There are, to be sure, a few exceptions. The administration actually changed some fuel and emissions standards in ways that specific manufacturers didn't like. More broadly, it now requires government agencies to calculate economic costs and benefits of new regulations before they are enacted--which is good for consumers. But beyond that there isn't much the administration can boast about, and some Republicans worry that the perception that the wolves are in charge of the hen house could matter in the fall, particularly among moderate women voters.

Furthermore, the "CEO's President" will stick as long as jobs are scarce. To state the obvious, Bush badly needs the economy to start creating some jobs over the next six months, particularly in key battleground states like Ohio and Michigan, which have hemorrhaged manufacturing jobs over the past few years. In those states the economy may well trump Iraq and the war on terror as an issue, as it did in the Iowa caucus. And if productivity continues to rise but the number of jobs doesn't, the "two Americas" theme that John Edwards strikes, however hoary it may be, will continue to get some traction. --Bill Powell