What populism isn’t


Rick Santorum delivered a speech at the Detroit Economic Club a few days ago, attacking the nation’s safety net and, oddly enough, holding it largely responsible for larger economic problems. Our pal James Carter flagged this clip, and it stood out for me for a couple of reasons.

As Santorum sees it, the nation simply needs to follow the model of the 1990s, when welfare reform became law. “[W]e cut the welfare rolls by 50 percent. We did that at a time when welfare rolls were at the highest level ever, just like food stamps are at the highest level ever. And guess what happened? Poverty rates went down. People went to work. Why? Because we put time limits and we put work requirements on receiving government benefits.”

He added that we can “turn this economy around” if we do the same thing now, but that rascally President Obama believes in “unemployment benefits” and “other social safety net programs,” which, Santorum believes, encourages “dependency” as Americans choose not to get jobs.

I found this important for two reasons. The first is that Santorum has a very odd memory. The reason poverty went down and job creation went up in the mid-to-late 1990s wasn’t because of “time limits and work requirements”; it was because the economy was booming. It’s amazing how many people can find jobs and get out of poverty when the unemployment rate is 4% and the economy is soaring.

The second, and arguably more salient point, is that remarks like these make clear that Santorum’s reputation for “populism” is badly misplaced.

Clive Crook argues today that Santorum “could teach Democrats a few things about channeling populist rage,” and last month, David Brooks had a column making the case that the former senator understands better than most how best to connect with the struggling working class.

Compared to Mitt Romney, perhaps, but look again at that clip – Romney isn’t sympathetic to working families; he’s instead eager to call them lazy and make their lives more difficult, on purpose.

This isn’t populism. It’s the opposite.

(James Carter’s blossoming YouTube page)

What populism isn't