Jerry Brown's furious assault on the "check-bouncing, midnight-pay raising, rip-off artists" of Washington has struck a nerve with an electorate whose long-running ire with politicians only got worse when the economy turned sour.
"They got a pay raise - you got a pink slip," Brown likes to tell blue-collar crowds, a line that fits in nicely with his basic theme - the few and greedy at the top have corrupted the system to lap up all the nation's wealth for themselves.Connecticut voters overwhelmingly agreed with Brown's critique: More than 72 percent of those who voted in last week's primary - which Brown won by a narrow margin - said they thought his criticisms of the political system were accurate.
Because Americans have always had a somewhat dim view of politicians, analysts say the sorry economy may be much of the reason Brown's message has taken hold.
"It's grounded in economics more so than any mistrust of the political system," said Larry Hugick, a Gallup executive who has done polling on Americans' discontent.
The highest that Congress' approval rating has been over the past several decades is 40 percent, Hugick said. Now, it's about half that.
"The public's mood has depressed severely since this last recession," Hugick said. "People are worried about their future, worried about their jobs, worried about their children. It makes government a bigger target than ever before. People are looking for some way to vent that frustration."
The House bank scandal, last year's dead-of-night pay raise by the Senate and a general anti-incumbent mood has helped Brown, too.
In his flashy shelling of the status quo, Brown invites the disgruntled aboard his "We The People" campaign, which limits contributions to $100. He rails against a system of big-money interest, which he says allows only "fat cats" who contribute $1,000 campaign checks to have any influence with lawmakers.
"They're more interested in perks and the gravy train than solving America's troubles," Brown says.
The Washington Post reported Monday that Brown's campaign echoes that of a fictional "Senator Smith" created in a 1988 book proposal by his occasional consultant, Patrick J. Caddell.
For instance, the newspaper quoted Brown saying in the announcement of his candidacy last October in Philadelphia, "Our cause is clear. We must: restore commitment to our nation, vitality to the values of our society, vigor to our economy, real democracy to our government and purpose to our national life."
Caddell's "Senator Smith" summed up his message, the Post said, by saying in part: "Our purpose is clear: we must restore community to our nation; vitality to the ethics and values of our citizenry; vigor to our economy and society; real democracy to our government; and purpose to our national life."
The book proposed by Caddell was never published. "Senator Smith" was a fictional device he employed in the proposal "to illustrate a strategy to energize disaffected voters by appealing to idealism while stoking anti-establishment anger," the Post said.
This past week in New York, Brown has told the story of how Thomas Jefferson started the Democratic Party. Jefferson, the story goes, was on a botanical journey up the Hudson River when he decided that the Federalists back in Washington were creating an aristocracy for the privileged few.
The same kind of "oligarchy of greed" has gripped the establishment now, Brown says. When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he "didn't say we the big shots, we the $1,000-check writers, we the politicians . . . It's `we the people."'
That feisty, take-it-back, outsider image is selling. It's also clear that Brown - former California governor and savvy fund raiser - isn't seeing his current message hampered by his past.
"I have anger toward politicians and the corporate elite," Dale Montez, a 22-year-old college student, said after hearing Brown speak Friday in Wisconsin.
"Someone has to stand up to it. Jerry's my man," he said.
But Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden thinks much of Brown's support is drawn from what he calls the "drop-dead-Bill-Clinton-vote" rather than any appeal for Brown.
"You have to divide Jerry's support in two groups," Darden said, calling one a protest vote against the front-running Clinton. The second group is "the fringe, anti-social group. The ones who put eight stickers on their automobiles," Darden said.
Americans fed up with the economy just aren't voting this year, Darden said, noting the low turnout that's occurred in almost every primary.
"During a time of economic turmoil, people should come out to force a change. This time, they're just staying home," he said.