John Wolfe, the Democratic gadfly and long-shot presidential candidate, is walking by himself down a busy street downtown, clutching a cardboard box full of pamphlets with a bacon sandwich perched on top. He’s wearing a green plaid dress shirt, with the purple dry cleaning tag still attached through the bottom buttonhole. Wolfe’s face is unshaven, and his hair is unkempt. He tells me he has just made it into town.
“I’m staying about 50 miles away with some friends,” Wolfe says, as we chat on the corner of Trade and Tryon Streets, beneath the shadows of towering skyscrapers. “You’re the first person I’ve talked to at length.”
Wolfe is a single man with a singular mission: to remind Democrats that their party isn’t all about Barack Obama.
“There’s a lot of discontent with Obama, especially the younger Democrats. I think they need to have somebody that really stands up for the traditional party principles,” he says.
Wolfe, a lawyer from Tennessee and a lifelong party member, picked up 120,000 votes in the Democratic presidential primaries, including an impressive showing in Arkansas, despite no name recognition and a dearth of campaign funds. In fact, based on the delegate count, he was Obama’s most successful challenger in 2012. But a lengthy battle with the Arkansas state party means Wolfe has only one delegate in Charlotte—and he’s doubtful that delegate will get seated.
The presidential bid clearly failed, but that hasn’t stopped Wolfe from coming to Charlotte to find fellow Democrats who will listen. His complaint against Obama is that the president has abandoned progressive positions on banking, trade, and foreign policy, and the party faithful has gone along with him. That’s what his six-page pamphlet, titled “A Party Betrayed” (published by the “Real Democratic Party”), is all about. Here’s a sample from the first page:
“Instead of using federal money to offset bad loan [sic] banks made to consumers (had Obama done this, every tax dollar would have reduced debt by two—minus one dollar for bank—minus one dollar for consumer), Obama simply used tens of billions of dollars to shore up bank capital and required nothing from the banks in return.”
Wolfe says he put the pamphlet together at the last minute but that he hopes Democrats read it to understand how far Obama has strayed from the progressive promise.
“Democrats are against austerity, and they don’t think that the middle class and the working class should pay for Wall Street’s mistakes because the hole in the economy is basically due to that,” Wolfe says. “If they believe that, then they should question Obama for it. The way they’ve done it now is he’s become the party and the party’s become him. For all the mistakes he’s made, for all the trouble we’ve had, only a few people, like me, have actually gone out and done something about it.”
In a way, Wolfe’s disillusionment with the modern Democratic party echoes some of the grievances of Ron Paul with the Republican party: the post-Cold War consensus between the two major parties on capitalism and trade has left many on the outside of a new order, looking in. But while the Paulites, who have primarily focused energy on stopping government spending and the wars, were a significant rump element of the Republican convention in Tampa last week, Wolfe is unlikely to find much of an audience. After all, the only person more popular in Charlotte this week than Obama is Bill Clinton, the symbol of the new, non-progressive Democratic party. Just the mention of Clinton’s name makes Wolfe bristle.
“They’re going to clap for a guy who made war against a lot of innocent people, a guy that took their jobs away with the free trade agreement, a guy that busted their banks by financializing the economy and deregulating and repealing Glass-Stegall,” Wolfe says. “They’re going to sit like a bunch of monkeys and clap for that guy, just like a bunch of robots. It’s like a milder version of North Korea.”
And the Democrats’ plan to focus on the GOP’s so-called “war on women”? Wolfe says it’s all distraction.
“If you’ve got a guy like Obama who’s for gay rights and he’s for abortion, then it’s okay he’s for austerity and endless war,” Wolfe says. “They’re doing the same thing the Republicans are. They’re letting identity group politics really shape what they’re doing. You’ve got a guy that’s lenient toward a lifestyle and says you can have unlimited reproductive rights, and then that’s fine. That’s all they need. Their identity as a woman is confirmed. Their identity as a liberated woman is confirmed. Their identity as a gay person is confirmed. So now, nothing else matters. It’s just bizarre.”