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Populism Elusive For President

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. Florida's first military governor and America's seventh president, Andrew Jackson, never lived in this city named to honor his military exploits that forced Spain to cede the territory to the United States.


His influence on the city's political nature is evident, however.

The old Jacksonian Democrats are today's independent voters -- opposed to heavy-handed government, supportive of states' rights.

Center-right nationally, they have no problem voting for a Democrat if the timing and issues are right.

Jacksonville is consolidated into Duval County, which has always leaned Republican. In 2008, it supported John McCain over Barack Obama; in 2010, it heavily backed Marco Rubio over Kendrick Meeks for U.S. Senate. Gov. Rick Scott won here over a Democrat, and two of its three congressmen are Republican.

Less than a year later, though, Alvin Brown is the first Democrat in 20 years and the first black to be mayor. He won by fewer than 1,000 votes, but Republican rival Mike Hogan, a tea-party favorite, was well ahead in polls before the election.

Brown caused Democrats to rethink the notion of a Florida problem -- especially among white independents, who embraced Brown's Jacksonian spirit -- for President Obama's re-election.

They are fooling themselves if they think Brown's win indicates an easy victory for Obama, whose ever-changing populist rhetoric tries to appeal to Jacksonians.

Brown won by smartly running a local campaign about local issues, on a centrist platform of job growth and not raising taxes.

Basically, he ran as a Republican -- without attachment to a GOP-controlled legislature whose popularity has plummeted because of steep budget cuts for education and other services.


Obama will never run on such a platform.

The local tea party, part of a national grassroots movement once dominated by party and independent voters upset by federal spending and overreach, has swung far right and lost its soul.

Voters who aligned with the tea party in 2009 and 2010 are Jacksonians, long a critical constituency, especially in presidential elections.

Socially conservative, fiscally prudent and preferring small government, they are not necessarily extremists. They only appear that way because, since 9/11, both parties have favored a large, powerful federal government.

They are like Jeffersonian Republicans who helped bring about the "Revolution of 1800," which ushered in Thomas Jefferson and kicked out the Federalist Party and John Adams (a "monarchist," according to Jefferson and James Madison).

Obama's State of the Union address, his 11th unofficial/official start to his re-election campaign, marked yet another attempt to craft a populist catchphrase that can recapture a dissatisfied electorate.

"Washington should stop subsidizing millionaires," he said, vowing for the umpteenth time to raise taxes only on the 2 percent of families with incomes above $250,000 a year.

Beaming at him from the first lady's gallery box was Debbie Bosanek, Warren Buffett's secretary. Obama has used her repeatedly as an example of someone paying a higher tax rate than her super-rich boss.

"Now, you can call this class warfare all you want," he said. "But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense."


Class warfare is not winning populism. Jacksonians are about being for something, not against success.

"Democrats have a love-hate relationship with populism," says Eldon Eisenach, University of Tulsa political science professor emeritus, "especially given their prominent role as part of a liberal establishment from, say, World War II through the 1980s."

Liberals have historic memories of populist violence (i.e., World War I), so their intellectuals just can't get "masses arise" out of their minds, Eisenach says. "So the populism of 'Occupy' or the attempt of Obama to capture a populist strain in Republican progressivism just won't work.

"The one theme (independents) have that is Jacksonian is to get the federal government off their backs and out of their pockets -- hardly what Obama or Occupy have in mind."

Today, we're all political Whigs to some degree, seeking respectability. The tea party has its Jacksonian element -- but white middle-aged Protestants make an unconvincing mob.

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