What Elizabeth Warren, Rand Paul, and Erick Erickson Have in Common

Rant against "marionettes" and "gravy trains" in Thad Cochran's race rings familiar to all sorts of populists.

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 6: Elizabeth Warren takes the stage for her acceptance after beating incumbent U.S. Senator Scott Bown at the Copley Fairmont November 6, 2012 Boston, Massachusetts. The campaign was highly contested and closely watched and went down to the wire. (National Journal)

You can feel Erick Erickson's pain. You don't need to be a firebrand conservative to empathize with Erickson's screed against the GOP establishment and its Mississippi "marionette" — Sen. Thad Cochran. You could be a liberal, a libertarian, or politically disengaged and still identify with Erickson's essay.

It's an Us-versus-Elites lament familiar to populists of all stripes.

Shortly after Cochran defeated a tea-party challenger with the help of the GOP establishment, out-of-state money, and recruited Democratic voters, Erickson wrote that the race "does crystallize for me the desires of many to start a third party."

The problem for those who call themselves Republicans is that it is harder and harder to say exactly what a Republican is these days. The great lesson from Mississippi is that Republican means, more or less, that if elected the party will reward its major donors, who are just different than the Democrats' major donors. Policy differences are about different donors, not an actual agenda to shift the country in a different direction.

Substitute the word "Republican" in that first sentence for "Democrat," and you've got the 2004 stump speech of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who claimed to hail from the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Delete "Mississippi" and you might mistake Erickson's rant for a passage in Elizabeth Warren's autobiography.

Erickson continued:    

The Republicans have become the party of lobbyists, most of whom were on twitter celebrating their purchase "¦ Cochran is, for all intents and purposes, a marionette. His strings are pulled by staffers and lobbyists. They drop him onto the stage of the Senate and pull up a string to raise his hand. These puppeteers are so invested in keeping their gravy train going that they will, while claiming to be Republicans, flood a Republican primary with Obama voters to ensure their gravy train continues.

This is classic populist language, with echoes of William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long and Theodore Roosevelt "“ politicians who exploited the public's frustration with shadowy special interests and their enablers in the political establishment.  "When they call the roll in the Senate," Roosevelt once said, "the Senators do not know whether to answer 'Present' or 'Not Guilty.'"

In an era, like ours, marked by wrenching economic change and political dysfunction, Roosevelt railed against puppeteers and gravy trains: "The death-knell of the republic had rung as soon as the active power became lodged in the hands of those who sought, not to do justice to all citizens, rich and poor alike, but to stand for one special class and for its interests as opposed to the interests of others," he said.

More from Erickson:

I continue to oppose a third party. I'm just not sure what the Republican Party really stands for any more other than telling Obama no and telling our own corporate interests yes. That's not much of a platform.

He sounds here like a very different populist: libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is trying to broaden the GOP base. "The Republican Party," Paul said recently, "will adapt, evolve or die."

Erickson wrote that Cochran won fairly and within the rules.

But this becomes a longer term problem for the Republican Party. Its core activists hate its leadership more and more. But its leadership are dependent more and more on large check writers to keep their power. Those large check writers are further and further removed from the interests of both the base of the party and Main Street. So to keep power, the GOP focuses more and more on a smaller and smaller band of puppeteers to keep their marionettes upright. At some point there will be more people with knives out to cut the strings than there will be puppeteers with checkbooks. And at some point those people with knives become more intent on cutting the strings than taking the place of the marionettes.

It is a system that cannot perpetuate itself.

That passage reminded me of the people I met while working on a story about emerging strands of populism across the political spectrum. Here are six paragraphs from that story, "Elites Beware: Eric Cantor's Defeat May Signal a Populist Revolution:"

"America is for the greedy, for those who've made their buck or grabbed their power. It's not for us," said Helen Conover of Oxford, Pa. She was eating with two other Chester County employees, Jennifer Guy and Kim Kercher, at the Penn's Table diner. Conover was the table's optimist.

"This country's doomed," Guy said. Kercher nodded her head and told me that she's close to losing her house to a mortgage company and can't get help from Washington. For years, their county salaries haven't kept pace with the cost of living. "The rich get richer. The poor get benefits. The middle class pays for it all," Kercher said.

Guy said she's an independent voter. Conover and Kercher are registered Republicans. All three voted for Obama in 2008, hoping that he could start changing the culture of Washington. Now, they consider the president ineffective, if only partly to blame for his failure.

"He hit a brick wall," Conover said. "The Republican Party is not going to let him change anything."

I replied, "But it's your party."

"No," Conover bristled, "it's not my party. I don't have a party." She paused, took a small bite of her sandwich and added, "An American Party is what I have."

An American Party — what does that mean? Perhaps Conover sees herself as one of those people Erickson talked about "“ wielding knives at the strings of marionettes. The establishment won Tuesday night and will win again, but unless the two parties adjust to the times and improve the quality of life and politics in America, the future may belong to angry populists.

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