Nobody seemed to notice when Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr adopted as his campaign
“Send Them a Message!” — the same outsider theme that animated George C. Wallace's populist third-party run in 1968.
p>Leaving aside the vast political and historical distance between the late Alabama Democrat and the former Georgia Republican, Barr's slogan clearly seeks to tap into an enduring populist conception of the government in Washington as a corrupt insider racket controlled by special interests, in which both Democrats and Republicans are out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.
p>The defeat of the Wall Street bailout deal in the House yesterday was an amazing convergence between libertarian ideals and a resurgent populist sentiment.
p>Brokered by leaders of both parties, the proposed $700 billion bailout was pitched in a primetime televised
last week by President Bush as a consensus: “After much discussion, there is now widespread agreement on the principles such a plan would include.” This consensus came with the imprimatur of expertise: “The government's top economic experts warn that without immediate action by Congress, America could slip into a financial panic, and a distressing scenario would unfold.”
p>Had this speech been made before a live audience, one could imagine the catcalls from the cheap seats. Why should these “top economic experts,” who evidently hadn't been able to prevent the crisis, now be entrusted with the solution? And what an easy consensus it must be for these “experts” to agree that the answer to Wall Street's problems was to grab $700 billion from the taxpayers.
p>Ordinary Americans could be forgiven their skepticism toward Washington talk of “experts” warning of a crisis with “widespread agreement” on the solution. Wasn't this just what they were told a few years ago about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction? For that matter, isn't it also what Al Gore says about global warming, and what Bill Clinton used to say about semi-automatic weapons?
p>POPULIST RESENTMENT can be understood as the natural response of citizens toward a government that has lost credibility. Just as the loss of credibility for Lyndon Johnson's “Great Society” in the 1960s created a populist backlash, a similar response has been generated by the crumbling credibility of Bush's “Compassionate Conservatism.”
p>Just as disillusionment with LBJ's policies undermined faith in the sixties “establishment,” so have the failures of the Bush years spawned a more general skepticism toward Washington. If the president's job approval (
) is at a historic low, approval ratings for Congress (