Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Scott Kleeb: Beyond Populism

by Ryan Anderson

"There aren't a lot of poor people in my district," Scott Kleeb said.

I really didn't know where he was going with that. His district, Nebraska's Third, contains four of the ten poorest counties in America. "There's plenty of people living below the poverty line, but they don't feel poor. And the Republicans have been tremendously successful in saying to these people: you're not poor. Your wealth comes from your family, your community, your sense of values. It's not just about money."

The netroots have moved quickly to declare 2006 the year of the populist, and populism is certainly no stranger to these Nebraskan plains. Here, the prairie boom of the 1880s led to the prairie bust of the 1890s and gave rise to the impressive political career of a young William Jennings Bryan: "the peerless one", the "boy orator of the Platte" who would in 1896 form an economic coalition between the farmers of the South and the miners of the West that would serve as a crude blueprint for the still distant landslide elections of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Both Bryan and Roosevelt rallied against the moneyed interests who lined their pockets while breaking the backs of the working poor and so too, we are told, did the new class of Democrats who rode to victory on November 7. But here in the birthplace of populism, the rising star of the Nebraska Democratic Party seems to reject this strategy and, in doing so, I believe Kleeb is hitting much closer to the source of the problem.

If rural voters don't feel poor, no wonder Democratic appeals to their compelling "economic interests" have failed to move them out of the Reagan coalition. If our message doesn't first resonate with a man's soul, we can't hope to move him by pointing to his checkbook.

What we need in our party are candidates who have a sincere respect for and share a genuine identity with the people they are trying to represent. In a superficial sense, I think this is what some people mean when they talk about "populism" anymore: Jon Tester's flat-top, Jim Webb's straight shooting and Scott Kleeb's cowboy boots aren't just cynical props designed to garner conservative votes, they're part and parcel of who these men are as human beings.

What we need in Nebraska, it would seem to me, is Scott Kleeb.

Now, don't get me wrong. The task of building a "new Nebraska" starts with all of us and it most certainly doesn't end with a single man. But our bench isn't exactly overflowing with candidates possessing Kleeb's understanding of and compassion for our rural communities and, more importantly, his unique ability to communicate that passion on the stump.

In Nebraska as well as in the greater United States there remains a growing rift between rural and urban, between Omahans/Lincolnites and those who live outstate. This rift lies at the very heart of our state's political shortcomings, and it won't be bridged by the Adrian Smiths and Dave Heinemens of the world. Nor, I'm afraid, by the Ben Nelsons. We need not a "caretaker" government at a time when the state isn't taking care of its people.

But having now had a chance to meet with Mr. Kleeb, I see in him a potential to bridge this divide and move Nebraska forward. Considering his intelligence, his eloquence and also his energy and discipline as a candidate I think the Republicans should consider themselves extremely lucky to have defeated him. But Kleeb's a fighter and I think - certainly, I hope - that they're mistaken if they believe he's down for the count.

Read the rest of Ryan's Interview with Scott Kleeb.

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