Picking Up The Pieces

As an owlish young prophet in the '60s, Kevin Phillips scanned Middle America for Richard Nixon. Since then he has seen the GOP dump Nixon's Main Street Republicanism for Ronald Reagan's mink-coat kind, and Neil Bush tarnish George Bush's Episcopal Garden Club variety. Last month he published his dismay in "The Politics of Rich and Poor." Since then Jesse Jackson has asked him for two signed copies of the book. Tom Turnipseed, one of George Wallace's old populist operatives, has written him a fan letter. And the head of the Senate's Democratic campaign committee has invited him to a retreat with Democratic senators intent on learning how to pull up their socks. This has infuriated the GOP's neo-laissez-faire, Laffer-curve fat cats. "That's not what I am," he says. "And that's not what the Republican Party was 20 years ago."

Phillips is what Garry Wills the political stylist has called "a connoisseur of grievances." The abuses of power elites and the losses of the middle class obsess him. He now believes rudderless parties, burned-out ideologies, a new plutocracy of corporate raiders, junk-bond artists, greedy-gut parvenues and their political collaborators have stuck America with the savings and loan mess, a tax system rigged for the rich and toxic levels of debt. Although he predicts a wave of populist reform for the 1990s, at 49, in his pinstripes and penny loafers, he doesn't look like much of a populist. He's no neo-lib; he's not out to change sides. Over lunch last week a Democratic congressman asked wistfully if his new book signaled the end of "The Emerging Republican Majority" that Phillips wrote in 1969. "That," Phillips said, "depends on the ability of Democrats to develop a triple-digit IQ."

Up to now, in Phillips's view, the Democrats have flunked the S&L intelligence test. The wisdom of deregulating savings and loans banks was essentially a conservative Republican thesis. A Republican administration misjudged how much it would cost to sponge the mess, then allowed the mop-up crews to make new millions. Americans don't have anything against getting rich, but the old role models were John D. Rockefeller with his oilfields or Henry Ford and his cars--men who used money and power to create something new, not fast-buck wizards. "When Horatio Alger gives way to Michael Milken," Phillips says, "that's a big cultural change." Americans in the middle and at the bottom of the heap don't like it when insiders get an unfair or illegal leg up on them. Not only did that happen with the S&L scandals, but now that the high rollers are on their uppers, Phillips observes, "ordinary people are going to have to pay for it." And Phillips thinks they might just blow up.

The Democrats would surely pick up the pieces--if they hadn't colluded with the Republicans in the recent Age of Greed. Looking backward, Phillips detects an odd historical pattern snaking through the Gilded Age, the Roaring '20s and the Reagan years. Calling these periods times of "capitalist overdrive," he says that whether in power or out, "the Democrats during these heydays have been collaborators." In the 1890s, President Grover Cleveland was an overstuffed Democrat hated by the populists as much as any Republican. In the '20s, the Democrats posed no serious threat to Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. During the last election, they chose Michael Dukakis, who went into "a 16-week nerdout" and blew the economic issue that Jesse Jackson had developed for him. After the election, the Democrats stumbled again when Newt Gingrich, a lowly Republican congressman, kept them dipped for months in the chump-change sleaze of Jim Wright, then speaker of the House.

As it happens, Gingrich, a former history professor, was one of the multitudes who invited Phillips to drop by last week. Gingrich and a number of other Republicans wanted to talk about "the wealth issue" and where the Republican Party stood in its history and cycles. The larger issue is whether George Bush can defuse his economic vulnerabilities before the Democrats figure out how to turn them against him. According to Phillips, Kennebunkport populism, with its pork rinds, horseshoe pits and Loretta Lynn concerts, is an oxymoron as laughable as the Porsche populism of the late 1970s. The real trick for the president will be to cut the right deals with the Democrats over the budget and taxes. If they play true to historical form, he might succeed. And if he keeps the economy pumped up, even if he runs up more debt, Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, Richard Gephardt and other Democrats who now sense his weaknesses might still find it wiser to wait for 1996.

Is Phillips right? His detractors have called his theories cornpone populism, country-and-Western Marxism, garbage, even. He remains philosophical. "I don't see any reason to concede the conservative label to those people who are survival-of-the-fittest disrupters of a lot of ordinary Americans' lives," he says. Last February, nostalgic for the forgotten American, the silent majority and how life plays in Peoria, he talked to Richard Nixon. He says, "I didn't find it very surprising that he wasn't for the Oscar de la Renta phase of the current Republican cycle." And if greed is no longer what it used to be, Republicans may still find some wear left in Pat's plain cloth coat.