Tami Chappell / Reuters

The looming disappointment of Michelle Nunn

A more populist campaign could have re-energized Georgia's politics and saved the Senate for the Democrats

November 4, 2014 2:00AM ET

The nation’s political eyes have been on Georgia for the past several months, which, according to polls, has teetered on the edge of slipping into the blue column for the first time in 12 years. The races for governor and the U.S. Senate have been competitive (though Republicans have a clear edge going into Election Day), not to mention a host of down-ticket elections, for the first time since 2002. The state’s changing racial demographics and aggressive registration of minority voters is generally credited with this trend.

For much of the country, the Senate race in particular is crucial because it may decide who controls Congress’ upper chamber come January. But for Georgians, living in a state plagued by all sorts of bread-and-butter issues — high unemployment, massive numbers of people without health care and very high rates of child poverty — the campaign offered little substance and lots of slogans. This is perhaps why the race as well as control of the Senate is slipping out of the Democrats’ grasp.

The nondebate debate

Georgia is, above all else, a poster child for the economic inequality and staggering lack of opportunity that has become a national issue. Last month its unemployment rate shot up to the highest in the country, at 8.1 percent, topping Mississippi’s 7.9 percent. More than a fifth of its residents are uninsured, making it the sixth-worst state in this regard; one-fifth of its children live in poverty.

Given these circumstances, it came as quite a shock for me, a lifelong Georgian, to watch the first senatorial debate last month. At a packed event at the Georgia State Fairgrounds, the three Senate candidates couldn’t have been more detached from both the realities of the state and its history of populist answers to its challenges. For Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of famed former Sen. Sam Nunn, the lost opportunity was the hardest felt. In the debate with Republican David Perdue, a multimillionaire industrialist and cousin of a former governor, and Amanda Swafford, a Libertarian lawyer, Nunn could not manage even a hint of populist concern for the difficulties of average Georgians.

The desperate poverty of the state didn’t come up once in the questioning, which hewed to national narratives divorced from conditions in Georgia. The first two questions were not, for example, about the millions of its uninsured residents or the 650,000 Georgians being denied access to Medicaid by the state government but about extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who pose little real threat to the homeland, let alone to the Peach State. It was a microcosm of the nationalizing of elections. Issues specific to Georgia — its unemployment, poverty, health care crises — took a backseat to topics drawn from national headlines: ISIL, undocumented immigrants, Barack Obama’s polarizing administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. 

On economic issues, the session reached the height of absurdity when debate panelist Jim Galloway, a seasoned hand at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with 35 years of reporting experience, asked the three candidates, “How to reduce a $17 trillion federal deficit? Do you it through a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases?”

Galloway was a bit off with the $17 trillion dollar figure. He exaggerated the size of the federal budget deficit by 34 times, confusing it with the national debt, which is actually closer to $18 trillion. The debt can’t rank lower as a top concern for average Americans, especially compared with jobs and the economy, and most serious economists see it as a nonissue in the short-term, realizing that it’s not actually a problem as long as inflation is low and the economy continues to grow.

But did Nunn seize on this clumsily worded question on yet another nonissue for voters, using it to pivot to Georgia’s jobs crisis? No, she instead chose to take it seriously.

“I have said during this campaign — I think I might have been the only person who said and complimented Saxby Chambliss for his work with Mark Warner,” Nunn said about a Senate plan that would slash Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age, something so unpopular that polling shows not even tea partiers will support it. Why did Nunn go out of her way to back unpopular policy? To pivot to one of her favorite themes. “Because I believe it is central that we have bipartisanship.”

Nunn’s campaign has been emblematic of Democratic Party Third Way politics that rose in the 1990s. In this brand of politics, you don’t stake out populist positions on issues then use them to motivate voters of the traditional progressive coalition, who are large in number but tend to have lower voter turnout rates (young people, racial minorities, the working class). Instead, you strive to show that you can work across the aisle and win a small segment of upper-middle class swing voters who tend to be white, live in the suburbs and sometimes vote for non-Republicans. In doing so, not only do you have to moderate your rhetoric — focusing not on class issues or poverty but rather the idea that Republicans are extreme and obstinate and that Democrats can be serious managers — but you also open yourself up to a class of very wealthy donors who are wary of fundraising for progressive Democrats.

Georgia has all the makings of a future progressive bastion, led by a robust political coalition of young people, racial minorities and women. But for this midterm election, the script is decidedly unprogressive.

Take, for example, Nunn’s jobs plan. The majority of the plan has little in the way of specifics, choosing instead to offer various pro-corporate pablum such as “providing certainty to businesses that are hamstrung by political leaders,” “reducing the regulatory burden on self-employed workers and all businesses that are often overwhelmed by complicated regulations” and enacting “comprehensive tax reform that lowers the corporate tax rate.” One area where she does get specific is calling for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is estimated to create 35 permanent jobs for all of America. What’s more likely than Nunn believing that 35 jobs for people who may not even be Georgians is good policy is that her campaign has decided that it’s yet another way to brandish her bipartisan credentials — and rake in fundraising. TransCanada, the firm that is seeking to build the pipeline, has on its payroll McKenna, Long & Aldridge. The legal and lobbying firm is Nunn’s sixth-largest pool of donors.

Given her Third Way campaigning, her charge against Perdue of practicing outsourcing while building his business career raises awkward questions. In her jobs plan, she calls for additional trade agreements like the ones that have contributed to the United States’ outsourcing problem.

In fact, in one of the debate panelists’ few bright moments, one of them asked Nunn if she would rework the North American Free Trade Agreement. “I believe we that we should always pursue and ensure that we are creating an equal playing field,” she replied. “I’ve talked to businesspeople, unions, farmers, and over and over again they say we don’t need a special favor — we need an even playing field.”

“Do we have that field?” followed up the panelist, frustrated by Nunn’s nonanswer.

“I think we need to continue to work towards that, both with every form of trade, whether that’s with the trans-Atlantic trade or the trans-Pacific that’s going forward, we need to make sure that environmental protections are in place and that worker protections are in place but that we’re creating an opportunity for jobs here and for the export of our products that are so important to Georgia.”

In other words, Nunn wanted to have her cake and eat it too: offer up rhetoric critical of unfair trade without committing to any specific action against one of its poster children, NAFTA. It was the sort of answer that was emblematic of her whole campaign, which hewed to elite slogans, not popular solutions.

A future progressive bastion?

Georgia is undergoing massive demographic shifts. Georgia’s white residents are 55 percent of its population, down from 72 percent in 1980. There are at least 900,000 unregistered minority voters (Recall that the margin of victory for Mitt Romney in the state in 2012 was close to about a third of that number.)

It has all the makings of a future progressive bastion, led by a robust political coalition of young people, racial minorities and women. But for this midterm election, the script is decidedly unprogressive. The Democratic candidate is campaigning via a Third Way algorithm, churning out rhetoric about bipartisanship and being pragmatic. The issues that animate actual Georgians — 56 percent want to raise the minimum wage to $10.00 an hour and expand Medicaid — are only on the fringes of the campaign.

But it’s likely that most Georgians won’t even vote. In the party primaries that took place earlier this year, turnout was 19.56 percent, marking, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “the low end of historical primary voting patterns in Georgia that traditionally fall between 20 percent and 25 percent. In the midterm primary four years ago, turnout hit 22 percent.”

This low turnout appears to validate Nunn’s strategy of talking up business credentials and trying to appeal to voters who want a lower corporate tax rate, but it doesn’t help distinguish her from her Republican opponent in a state that has leaned Republican in recent years. Both candidates realize they live in a political system that primarily serves and mobilizes the well off, and neither is attempting to do any organizing to change that. The result is an election that is in many ways completely detached from the lives of most Georgians. To them, this is an election about nothing at all.

With Election Day here and a very small segment of voters going to the polls and an increasingly cynical and alienated electorate staying home, it may very well be that the center ground Nunn’s campaign is trying to stake out can’t hold. Polls showed her running behind Purdue in the final days of the contest.

But a state with a population that is increasingly nonwhite — with enormous numbers of the poor, immigrants and young people — can’t keep sending conservatives to higher office forever. It’s only a matter of time before someone does the hard work of organizing underrepresented Georgians and making them into a political force that as of yet is not being served by the candidates currently on the ballot, whether they are Democrats, Republicans or Libertarians. The political revolution that independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has called for may very well be coming, and when it does, it will sound a lot more populist and class-conscious than the “sensible, pragmatic and problem-solving leadership” that Nunn speaks of.

Zaid Jilani is a former senior reporter and blogger at ThinkProgress and a freelance journalist. He is a Syracuse University graduate student seeking his MPA.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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