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Tom Perriello Picks Up the Anti-Corporate Mantle

A week or so ago, observers arched their eyebrows at Tom Perriello’s statement in a town hall meeting that Tim Geithner should be fired. They shouldn’t have been too surprised – Perriello had said it before. And he went further this week, responding to the notion that he was “following” John Boehner’s lead:

“Though he has changed the rhetoric, Treasury Secretary Geithner has too often championed President Bush’s economic priorities of bailing out Wall Street, ignoring construction and manufacturing, and going easy on Chinese currency manipulation and dumping practices. This approach, which has gained consensus among elites in both parties, is based on the flawed logic that subsidizing speculators to the hilt will eventually spread a few dollars to everyone else. The financial sector is vital to the economy, but Geithner and the Republicans need to wake up to the fact that Americans are hurting for jobs on Main Street. Like many Perot-style Democrats in Congress, I have been fighting to rebuild America’s competitive advantage, support small business and community banks, and crack down on China. The change many of us fought for in 2008 runs a lot deeper than changing the name plate on the door from Paulson to Geithner. I hope that President Obama will find the Arne Duncan of economic development, a visionary with ‘on the ground’ experience creating jobs. We need someone who understands the need to start building, making and growing things in America again.

I’m going to take a pass on “Perot-style Democrats” as well as the “Arne Duncan of economic development,” neither of which work for me at all. But the themes here, of progressive populism, of support for manufacturing, of rejecting trickle-down economics, makes perfect sense for the times. Perriello comes from a tough district in Virginia, and this is how he feels he can best connect with his constituents.

Perriello also placed Boehner squarely on the side of the corporatists by noting the Minority Leader’s strong support for the bank bailout and “bad trade deals that sell out the American worker.” He said that Boehner and Geithner only differ on the stimulus, which has created millions of jobs. But he proclaimed himself dissatisfied. “In the first two years of this Administration, bold action by Congress kept our economy from falling off a cliff, but that is not nearly bold enough for the times we face […] For this, we must do better than the Geithners and Boehners who have given up on America’s workers.”

He followed up on this in an interview with David Corn:

“I don’t see the dividing line as liberal versus conservative. It’s populist versus corporatist. If we’re not standing up to the most powerful interests, where is the Democratic Party?” Perriello acknowledges that some in the conservative district may judge him harshly based on his votes for health care, cap and trade, and the stimulus. (After a tea party blogger angry about “Obamacare” published the address of Perriello’s brother—believing it was the congressman’s home—someone cut the propane line to the gas grill.) But, Perriello notes, “I’ve been incredibly critical of [White House economic adviser] Lawrence Summers as someone who wouldn’t know anyone making less than six figures, unless that person was driving him around.” He often reminds constituents that he didn’t vote for continuing the bank bailout.

When a saleswoman at an appliance store tells him that her elderly customers often can’t afford the cost of replacement parts, Perriello replies, “We’re not producing anything anymore. The elites in both parties are too close to Wall Street. If jobs are created in India, that’s fine with them.” This is not a made-in-DC message tailored by Democratic strategists. It’s Perriello’s home brew. He was first elected as a populist bashing the incumbent’s corporate campaign donors. Now, he’s running against the corporate consensus in the nation’s capital—including his own party’s brass.

This is an important race to watch. For if Perriello can succeed with this message – like Alan Grayson, also representing a swing district – maybe it changes a few minds among the consultant-ocracy.

UPDATE: It’s not like Perriello doesn’t have substantial grist for this particular mill – today’s report that CEO’s of the top 50 job-cutting companies took in $598 million in compensation should provide some mileage.

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David Dayen

David Dayen