John Edwards Can Re-Spin The Earth And Control The Fourth Dimension! BREAKING!!!
We're two weeks out from the Iowa caucuses (and if you're in Southern California, I'll have info on the it place to be on caucus night soon), and between the endless horse race media coverage, most of it wrong, and the somewhat crazy hero-worship lionization of candidates throughout the blogosphere, particularly in diaries on the big community sites (Kos, MyDD), I haven't had much to add. I do follow the Republican candidates with interest because they're all so impossibly flawed that I can't imagine any of them winning, which is just fascinating to me.
But obviously, I'll be voting for a Democrat, so let me try and make up for my lack of writing about the primary here. From the beginning of this race, the candidate that has intrigued me most is John Edwards. He seems to be maintaining his traction in Iowa, depending upon what poll you read, and he is absolutely right to excoriate the media for losing all attention to him in the months leading up to the caucuses, in favor of their preferred story about the Hillary/Obama race. I confess to not guilt but certainly a twinge of awkwardness in going for the only viable white guy in the race, and I do hope that Edwards at least does his part to make the general election still historic by choosing someone like Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas as his running mate. I had a running joke that, as a comedian, I can't do a Hillary impression, and the Obama one wouldn't come off too well either, so I was starting a PAC called White Male Comedians for Edwards. In truth I believe that any of the Democratic candidates will be running on a platform far to the left of Bill Clinton, and that they're all electable against the sorry field of the GOP. But with me, there is a stronger connection to Edwards.
See, I am also the son of a millworker. My dad started in the textile factories of Philadelphia at the age of 15. I remember going around with him, when he graduated into the sales arena, to those mills. They were dusty and dingy and so hot that the employees would work with their shirts off. It was honest but often grueling work. And in the subsequent years after I was born, it was a job that vanished from the streets of Philadelphia. When I was born there were close to a hundred textile mills, mainly sweater mills, in Philly. Today there are none. The entire industry was moved offshore, given away to the developing world as an opportunity for them to advance themselves in a low-skill trade. This was done through systematically lowering trade barriers and in the name of neoliberal free trade, and it started in the 1970s lest anybody think it was ushered in by Reagan. But the truth is that it didn't lift up the developing world, it didn't create an economic engine globally, it didn't help American workers move into the jobs of the 21st century. It created a bunch of nations scrambling to turn their wage force into a permanent underclass, and instituted the same dichotomy at home, through menial service-sector jobs. And it did little for "world peace," which was the putative reason given to my father for the transformation, when he lobbied Congress on the issue in 1979.
This chart from the Congressional Budget Office shows that, while the roots of this growing inequality are long and deep, the age of George W. Bush has stratified it even more.
The top one-fifth of the country has seen their incomes rise 16%, while the rest have close to a 3% increase. The top 10%: up 20.9%. The top 5%? 27.7%. And the top 1%? A 43.5% increase.
There is a disconnect between the economy of the rich and the economy of the rest of the nation, between those who understand the nation's economic health by watching the stock market, and those who understand by watching the streets. And nobody but John Edwards on the Democratic side taps into that disconnect, gives voice to a frustration and anxiousness that the American working class has felt for some time. Some have claimed that Edwards' anti-corporate rhetoric is a sharp change from 2004. It's not. He talked about the two Americas on the stump all the time four years ago. What he now understands is that there is more of a sense of desperation, that these times must be matched with a rhetorical force that is uncompromising against special interests and lobbyists and those who attempt to run Washington through the endless placement of dollars at the feet of politicians. This is a simple, grounded message that makes media types, who don't live in the world of his target audience, naturally uncomfortable. And it's most certainly the message in John Edwards' soul, regardless of the sniffs about a lack of authenticity. It's fair to look at his Senate record and claim that he did not stand boldly for change when an elected official. But Ezra Klein looks deeper and sees someone who's commitment is far more clear.
Reminded of (Lauch, the man who he beat in his Senate run) Faircloth's attacks on trial lawyers, Edwards' longtime pollster Harrison Hickman laughs. "We were very much like Br'er Rabbit: glad to be thrown into that brier patch. It lets Edwards talk about the kinds of people he represented, families and children who'd been injured in egregious ways. The challenge would always have been, in a debate: Name one of my clients who didn't deserve the award they got."
It is a failure of political reporting that those legal cases are rarely evaluated as anything but potential attack ads. The stories, people, and corporations Edwards came into contact with amounted to a searing, visceral course in old-style populism.
Think of it this way: Hillary Clinton's caution and political savvy are obvious products of an adult life spent entirely in politics, the last 15 years or so on the national stage. Barack Obama's broad appeal and talent for consensus building are not unexpected traits in a former community organizer. So what does spending decades confronting the grievous, heartbreaking damage done to individuals and families by powerful, profit-driven corporations do to a man?
"Every single day," says Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, "what he saw were good people, in great need, who were being mistreated by big corporations -- corporations that knew that they had done wrong, and often insurance companies that were taking a calculated risk going to trial. … If you took that person, a person who chose that as his life, you would end up with the politics that he's talking about today."
In 2003, when John Edwards wanted to present himself to the electorate, he, like every other world-leader wannabe, wrote a book. But his Four Trials, unlike most campaign tracts, doesn't say a word about his experience in the Senate or his plans for the country. Instead, it recounts a quartet of trials Edwards fought: two against corporations, two against doctors. More to the point, it introduces four clients whom Edwards fought for: ordinary individuals who display heroic endurance in the face of profoundly unfair events. At the close of one wrenching trial, Edwards turns to the jury and says, "What you have been doing for the last seven weeks is you have been watching what happens when absolute corporate indifference collides with absolute innocence. That's what this case is. That is what this case is about. And that is why you are here."
I don't think Edwards is a deity. The "One Corps" volunteer aspect of his campaign - the call to build a movement rather than build around a leader - never really materialized. And it's an open question whether as President he could leverage the bully pulpit and progressive movement power to get real change past those corporate gatekeepers, who would unite to sabotage him. But you would absolutely know where he stood. With Clinton you get the feeling that she is committed to incremental steps within the system. Obama hasn't shown the willingness to fight to a large degree. When given the chance, Edwards has stood against corporate power, and with a mandate he'd have a lot of energy he could harness. Chris Bowers thinks there's an absence of left-wing power in the primary, and he may be right. But I don't think any of the top candidates would give an ear to the broader progressive movement in the way that Edwards would. Sometimes it's not about the perfect candidate so much as the candidate who you think will be available to your concerns. I think America would have a progressive partner in the White House with John Edwards.