In 1999 I went to see Ralph Nader in Madison Square Garden. That’s right: Nader played the Garden. Before his speech singers sang: Eddie Vedder, Ani Difranco, Ben Harper. (For the record, Harper sang Sexual Healing, which seemed odd for a Nader rally.) Nader's speech was reductive but essentially true. I wanted to love it and almost did. Democrats disappointed me. I’d never been part of a movement. I was young.
Then the following year Bush happened. He entered office, and within two months, it was clear that I had underestimated the damage that one president could do. Within two years, it was tragically clear.
My political beliefs didn’t change; my beliefs about politics changed. I still believe that the Democratic Party should be less plutocratic and more populist, that it should oppose or at least reform America’s Empire. But now I also believe that the world cannot afford a Republican president. Both the country and the Democratic Party need to change, but in the meantime there needs to be a Democratic president.
I had come to understand that passion and pragmatism didn’t conflict, and that purity and politics did.
Here, to this audience, I don’t have to discuss the horrors that Bush inflicted upon the world in his first term. Suffice it to say, I didn’t want him to be president anymore. Beating him, that was the first priority, stopping the literal bleeding.
Howard Dean was a problem for me. He seemed honest for a pol and opposed the war in Iraq. He wasn’t a robot. But some of the things I liked about him—his secularism, for example—made him unelectable. So I eventually chose to look elsewhere, a decision made easier by Dean’s moderation on economic issues. I flirted with Wes Clark before resigning myself to John Kerry. I thought he was going to win.
I paid almost no attention to Edwards until the end of the campaign. He seemed too pretty, even for politics. He didn’t seem ready to be president. Where were the lines of his face or some other sign that he had lived and worked and suffered? It seemed as if he’d been delivered straight from the candidate factory, freshly unwrapped.
It wasn’t until just before the Iowa caucuses that I realized his rhetoric was a tad spicier than the standard fare served up by Democrats:
Today, under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one: One America that does the work, another America that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America that will do anything to leave its children a better life, another America that never has to do a thing because its children are already set for life. One America—middle-class America—whose needs Washington has long forgotten, another America—narrow-interest America—whose every wish is Washington's command. One America that is struggling to get by, another America that can buy anything it wants, even a Congress and a President.
Pretty tasty, no? Not perfect: like a lot of populist rhetoric, it plays to the middle and neglects the bottom. And his political positions hadn’t yet caught up with rhetoric. Still, its implications and potential were undeniable; it suggested a politics more progressive than anything presented by Dean, Kerry, or Clark.
My newfound interest in Edwards grew into fondness the night he won the South Carolina Primary. Energized by the giddy crowd, he gave what Joe Scarborough—don’t scoff; he’s a decent analyst—called one of the best speeches he had ever heard:
Tonight—tonight—somewhere in America a 10-year-old little girl will go to bed hungry, hoping and praying that tomorrow will not be as cold as today because she doesn't have the coat to keep her warm; hoping and praying that she doesn't get sick as she did last year, because it means 24 hours waiting in an emergency room to try to get medical care; hoping that her father, who lost his job when the factory closed and has not been able to find steady work, will actually get a job that allows him to provide for his family. She's one of 35 million Americans who live in poverty every single day, unnoticed, unheard. Well, tonight we see her, we hear her, we embrace her, she is part of our family and we will lift her up.
I sat there alone in my living room, moved. Moved almost to tears despite all my jadedness. Somehow, without anyone quite noticing, his campaign had transformed into a moral crusade. He'd found his voice. Melodramatic yet powerful, like a good Hollywood tearjerker, the speech showed me his political potential but also, I felt, his genuine self. I remember thinking, he believes this.
Of course, I can’t ask you to share my instincts. But I want you to know a few things. That he’s long identified with the unlucky classes and mistrusted corporations. That his oft-derided first career, personal injury lawyer, in fact serves an important political function, especially in the deregulated, government-gutted South. That a strain of populism runs through his life, from his years growing up working class to his career as an attorney to his Senate term to his presidential campaigns. That the moderates at the Democratic Leadership Council wanted to make him their Golden Boy and he said no.
What I want you know, above all, is that this time around he’s running as a bold progressive populist. He’s rejected neo-liberalism in favor of a neo-Keynesianism approach that makes programs that help people a higher priority than balanced budgets. The centerpiece of his domestic agenda is a comprehensive and politically viable universal health care plan, which could lead to a single-payer system. And Edwards is the first major presidential candidate in the era of globalization to question the preeminent religious faith of Washington DC and Corporate America: the belief in so-called free trade. Taken together, his agenda represents a direct challenge to the Corporatocracy.
An Edwards presidency would not merely undo much of the damage done in the last seven years but would also alter an unacceptable status quo that predates Bush. Predates Nixon, actually.
“He’s changed,” his detractors say. “He wasn’t this progressive when he was in the Senate.” No, he wasn’t, and there’s no point in claiming that he was. (Why, for that matter, would I want to?)
North Carolina in the nineties was not a friendly place for pols who smelled even vaguely liberal, although Edwards had the gumption to oppose the flag burning amendment—one of only two Southern senators to do so—and he unflinchingly supported a woman’s right to choose. You could argue that he has always been as progressive as the context would allow. But I think something more fundamental is at play.
What does Edwards say about his leftward move? This bit of introspection isn’t exactly Shakespearean—asking pols to analyze themselves is like asking plumbers to pirouette—but I was glad to see him acknowledge a change:
What happens is—for all us, I hope—is we evolve, we mature. In my case there’s been a lot of seasoning that’s gone one both during the campaign and since that time. I’ve done a lot of work overseas, for example, and I’ve learned.
My feeling is that it took him a while, though not long in the scheme of things, to find the philosophy that suited his sympathies. If you start off with a concern for people and you think about it—you act on it—in a logical, honest, and meaningful way, you wind up on the left side of the political spectrum. (Edwards, remember, has only been a politician for a decade.) You start off with a visceral hatred of injustice, and by the time you’ve studied poverty and traveled around the world and hashed out your ideas with your smart progressive wife, you’re more of a New Dealer than a New Democrat.
That’s not to say that there’s not some politics in his politics. Whenever I hear people complain that Edwards is making a political play, I think of Dr. Strangelove (“There’s no fighting in the war room!”) Let me make a little news here: Edwards wants to win.
With Barack Obama running as a new kind of politician unburdened by ideology and Hillary Clinton running as Hillary Clinton, there’s an opening on the left, which Edwards has filled. The netroots has helped to create the opening. We get the candidacies we create and we’ve helped to create this one. Why not embrace it?
Although Edwards had intrigued me in 2004, I knew I couldn’t support him in 2008 unless he renounced his vote for the Iraq War Resolution. That was the minimum requirement for me: to take responsibility for an awful vote. Edwards did, in dramatic fashion. The first line of his now famous Op-Ed was, “I was wrong.”
A number of progressives have praised his forthright admission, but some have recently questioned its significance. While it’s fair to point out that his apology in of itself doesn’t tell us much about his foreign policy philosophy, to dismiss it as nothing more than politics is to indulge in cheap revisionism.
The Iraq War has spawned a virtual contrition industry. It’s easy to forget that Edwards was the first politician of national significance to say he was wrong. Prior to the appearance of his op-ed, “I was wrong” was something that politicians simply didn’t say, especially when the subject was national security. To admit error, consultants believe, is to appear weak; that’s why they tried to convince Edwards to remove the first line from his op-ed. He refused. It seems that this was his independence day of sorts, the first step in an ongoing effort to shake off the grip of Beltway Groupthink.
It’s no coincidence that the more he distances himself from DC consultants, the more frank he becomes. He’s increasingly willing to say things politicians aren’t supposed to say. He freely admits that he’s going to raise taxes. He says a balanced budget is not a high priority for him. I was especially impressed by this following exchange about hiscall for withdrawal from Iraq on Face the Nation:
Q. What’s going to happen if your recommendations are followed?”
A. As president the first thing I would do is say to the American people is, we can’t predict with any certainty what will happen.
Q. Can a person run for president making a statement like that, ‘I don’t know what will happen if we leave.’
A. It’s the truth, and I think the American people know that.
Bob Schieffer was clearly taken aback; he’s accustomed to politicians feigning prescience. Edwards’s humility is all the more striking in contrast to Bush’s arrogance and recklessness. Someone like Edwards—aware of his inability to control events—won’t lead us into places we don’t want to be.
Have I mentioned that Edwards can win? For a change it’s possible that the candidate running left is also the strongest general election candidate. That’s right: the best candidate may also be the best candidate.
I wouldn’t make a case for Edwards based solely on that infamous quality: electability. For one thing, any Dem we nominate next year will stand a good chance of winning. For another, electability is hard to measure; numbers can tell most any story you want them to tell. But let me say, his numbers are good. Whatever poll you look at, Edwards has approval ratings in the fifties and disapproval ratings in the twenties, this after taking part in a bruising, national election. More important, perhaps, the 2004 campaign vetted and tested him: there's no more dirt to be dug up; his endurance and temperment can't be questioned.
In any case, it’s the combination of his political ability and his progressive populism that impresses. But then these two qualities aren’t mutually exclusive, populism being, in my opinion, not only the moral message for Dems but also the most effective. And you can’t separate the man from his message; it wouldn’t be effective if he didn’t believe it.
But effective it is. It’s been a while since populism has been delivered in such an appealing package. Here’s Sahsa Abramsky, writing in Mother Jonesabout his presence, which he calls “Bobby Kennedy-esque.”
In 2004, Edwards seemed charismatic, yet somehow not fully formed. This time around, there is nothing raw or inexperienced in his presentation: he establishes an instant rapport with his audience, his answers are passionate, and he exudes a command of his subject. When he fields questions from the press, his eye contact is almost hypnotic. When he talks about the issues he cares about most—poverty, Iraq, healthcare—he creates the same sincere-yet-not-pontificating aura that Bill Clinton mastered 15 years ago…[H]is voice this time around is stronger than in 2004, his policies better honed, and his anger at the state of the country today almost incandescent.
I’m excited about Edwards—but not satisfied. I have hopes for him (and that alone says something.) I hope that his opposition to the “free” trade regime leads him to recognize the dark aspects of American imperialism. And that his interest in poverty leads him to call attention to our self-defeating and unfair criminal justice policies. I want him to support gay marriage and oppose the death penalty. I want him, I beg him, I implore him to give a major speech in which he lays waste to the principles underlying neoconservatism and presents a non-interventionist program for protecting human rights around the world. Hell, I even hope he brings sanity and justice to American policy regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. (I may be a pragmatist now, but I’m still a dreamer.)
So no, Edwards isn’t ideal. But he’s pretty damn good, and after seven years of George Bush, after thirty years of Republicans running on fear and Democrats running scared, pretty damn good is pretty damn great.
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