John Edwards: Populist

Johnedwards_2Despite all the recent media attention given to Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Senator John Edwards continues to pick up steam.

Ezra Klein, writing in the March issue of The American Prospect, recently profiled Senator Edwards. Here's the first five paragraphs:

If the secret to Samson's strength lay in his curly locks, the source of John Edwards' power is his voice. Speaking in a honeyed North Carolinian drawl peppered with "sirs" and "pleases," Edwards can talk of populism and class in terms that would get most any other candidate labeled a Leninist, and yet he seems unthreatening, even solicitous. As Chuck Todd, the editor of National Journal's Hotline, marvels, "Howard Dean says it, and it's shrill; Edwards says the exact same thing, and you melt." The voice separates Edwards from the rest of the field, and makes him the first genuine populist in decades with a serious shot at the presidency.

Underlying the way Edwards talks, and even how he thinks, is a simple fact that is often ignored because it is so obvious: John Edwards is a trial lawyer before he is a politician. His are the highs and lows of a speaker trained on juries, not crowds; of a voice that seeks to persuade rather than to inspire. Generally, a talented politician is a masterful orator. But while a great orator seems larger-than-life, a great trial lawyer seems like he just came from your living room, possibly after watching the ballgame. And Edwards is one of the best.

For progressives, this translates into an important difference: John Edwards can speak truths about the country that the other Democratic candidates cannot. At the AFL-CIO's annual Wellstone Award dinner last December, where Edwards was being presented with the yearly decoration, he ruefully responded to a particularly powerful video of the late Paul Wellstone's fiery populism by chuckling, "I'm a southerner; we don't know how to talk like that." But as a southerner, as a trial lawyer, and as an experienced presidential campaigner, Edwards knows how to talk about that without marginalizing himself or unsettling his audiences. It's a difference in style that allows a difference in substance -- one that could decide whether, in 2008, the Republicans face off against a Clintonian or a populist.

This would seem a time for the latter. The Democrats swept to victory in 2006 by delivering an economically populist, antiwar message. When the Campaign for America's Future asked voters to name the three most important issues of the election, "Iraq" topped the list, followed closely by "gas prices and oil companies" and "health-care costs." In 2004, 53 cents of every dollar in salary increases went to the top 1 percent of earners. Inequality has gotten so bad that even George W. Bush has given a speech decrying its rise and the attendant spike in CEO pay.

In short, it would seem an ideal moment for the class-conscious son of a millworker. But populism is traditionally a hard sell in American presidential politics, even when the timing is fortuitous, and Edwards has compounded that problem by declaring war on poverty as well. That's not exactly a proven combo for winning the nation's highest office, and the electorate may not want to hear such harangues from a mansion-dwelling lawyer worth tens of millions of dollars. But it's been a long time since a presidential campaign featured a populist as authentic as Edwards, and he's spent a long time proving his talent for winning over skeptical groups of ordinary Americans. For Edwards, those groups used to be called juries. Today they're called voters. The question is whether there's really a difference.


  • pedro (unverified)

    it's going to be an interesting primary. right now we have hillary leading--often substantially--in most of the polls, but with barely a hint grassroots support, and very little energy or excitement. obama is roughly the opposite; trailing at 2nd or often 3rd in the polls, but with substantial (and growing) grassroots support, and tons of energy and excitement in his campaign. how much of it comes from the rockstar factor, and how much of it can be turned into action? meanwhile, john edwards keeps somewhat below the radar (except for a few bungles that will not be remembered a year from now, except by the hardcore junkies) quitely hammering away at his "two americas" theme to anyone who will listen, and richardson similarly shows off his very impressive resume, and easy campaining skills, ready to jump to the first tier at any moment.

  • (Show?)

    I have to say, I really like Edwards. He seems completely authentic in his economic beliefs, and I'm impressed by his vigor in promoting them. He is a true traitor to his class, and bless him for it.

  • Bruce (unverified)

    I disagree, Stephanie, I haven't been at all impressed with his pandering against Wal-Mart (i.e. touting that his son chided a classmate for wearing shoes bought at Wal-Mart, saying that "If a 6 year old understands it, why doesn't everyone else?"). Maybe that's just me though.

  • (Show?)

    right now we have hillary leading--often substantially--in most of the polls

    Puh-leeze. Ignore all national polls. They no more apply than does a poll of people in Sweden. The Democratic nominee won't be chosen by Swedish voters, and he/she won't be chosen in a national election.

    Hillary is leading in New Hampshire, but not in Iowa or South Carolina. Last I checked, there hasn't even been a poll in Nevada.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)

    If you ignore Hillary (wish, wish) we have some interesting candidates. I look forward to seeing them develope. Edwards (as traitor to his class) um, textile millworker's son ??

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    Bruce --

    Without knowing more about who the classmate was, and his financial circumstances, I can say only that that sounds like a terrible example of rudeness, which six year olds are often capable of. Having said that, if the classmate was the spawn of another gazillionaire, then maybe it's not so awful for him to imbibe that shopping at Wal-mart is less than desirable. But I don't believe anyone should be criticized for making "choices" that are forced on them by economic or other circumstances. (In fact, I'm here to tell you that in Towson, Maryland, if you need to get a key copied at 10 pm on a Sunday, Wal-mart is where you have to go. )

  • DeanOR (unverified)

    "Populism"? Does that come before or after bombing Iran? To me, his apology for his 2002 vote authorizing military force means nothing when he then tells AIPAC "All options are on the table, and I mean ALL options". There is no way to say that with Southern gentility. Turning around after that inflammatory statement and telling liberals how much he believes in diplomacy doesn't help. We need to know what he believes in and what he would do in the future. "All options" logically would have to include the current official US policy of preemptive/preventive war unless the candidate says otherwise. That is the policy that led to us killing tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and may soon lead to attacking Iran. He needs to repudiate that Bush/Cheney doctrine as Jim Webb and Wes Clark have done, and show that he will abide by the constitution and international law before I can care about his populism. A compassionate populist ought to be able to show us that he understands what is wrong with wars of aggression and murdering and torturing people.

  • pedro (unverified)

    "Puh-leeze. Ignore all national polls."

    'Puh-leeze' yourself. ignore nothing.

    the point remains: it's going to be an interesting primary.

  • (Show?)

    One thing you can't ignore, Kari: money money money. And Clinton has lined up favors like Boss Tweed. She's going to be tough to dislodge and if nominated, she'll go down like Dukakis. Michael, not Olympia.

  • Thomas Ware (unverified)

    Clinton/Edwards/Obama just spent the past two weeks sucking up to Israel and hawking War with Iran - if this is the est 'yawl can come up with then we are well and truly screwed.

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    Populist? Sick as I am of the Southern Captivity of American politics, I generally like Edwards, but geez louise, if this guy, with his mansion and private plane, tries to paint himself as a populist, and worse, if we uncritically buy that description, lord help us.

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    One thing you can't ignore, Kari: money money money.

    That's true. A year ago, many of us believed that Hillary would exit 2006 with some $20-25 million. She's nowhere close.

    Her ability to raise is awesome, to be sure, but so far it ain't actually happening.

  • Realist (unverified)

    I seriously doubt America is ready for either a female or black president. That being said, Edwards is the most realistic candidate Democrats have as of today.

    If you travel beyond our blue state and talk to people, as I have done, you will realize the most surefire way to elect another Republican is to nominate Hillary or Obama.

  • jall (unverified)

    DeanOR & ThomasWare: John has since clarified his statements, making it clear he does not think an attack on Iran would be smart. lin qiao: Don't forget he was a millworkers son, and the first in his family to go to college. Don't forget how even some people born into wealth, like FDR, have been on class issues. Being a rural populist myself, I want someone who will focus on economics, and John Edwards is the only candidate who discusses economics beyond health care and education. As well, he is the only serious candidate that I've heard say they support public-financing of elections.

  • Bert S. (unverified)

    Jall said:

    "he does not think an attack on Iran would be smart."

    I am generally relatively enthusiastic about Edwards. But, the way he/you talk about this is part of the problem. Attacking Iran is not only NOT SMART in a strategic sense.

    It's wrong at every level. Just a tad bit of historical perspective on middle east policy, especially on Iran, would go such a long way.

    All (agressive) options should not be anywhere near the table. Rather, it's time to crack open the conflict resolution textbooks and get to peace-making.

  • (Show?)

    My opinion of Edwards has been colored lately by the way he handled the dustup of hiring bloggers for his campaign. Instead of standing by those he hired--he allowed some rightwing shills to bully the campaign and forced them into leaving.

    If the Edwards campaign can't manage to handle a petty incident like that--they're inept, IMO.

  • Who's a Populist? (unverified)

    Oh he's a populist ALL RIGHT...That's why they needed a 28,000 square foot mansion. For all the people they plan on taking in.

  • Guy Fawlkes (unverified)

    It's great to read some actual progressive posts here. Thanks to DeanOR, ThomasWare, and Bert S.

    Those who think a hawkish foreign policy is necessary for "electability" are not only wrong, they're Republican.

  • notchomsky (unverified)

    The Death of the Health Insurance Industry and Reduced Profits for the Drug Cartel Why Hillary, Obama, Edwards, Romney and Schwarzenegger Don't Support Single-Payer Health Care By Corporate Crime Reporter

    If you care about populist issues, read this story. There's nothing more popular than single-payer, universal health insurance. Why won't Edwards support it?

  • (Show?)

    Because a million people will be put out of work. Because some $10 billion in stock market capitalization will vanish. Because there aren't 50 votes in the US Senate for it -- much less the 60 required for cloture.

    Single-payer health insurance is one way to achieve universal health care, but there are other ways to achieve the same goal.

    What's more important: achieving universal health care - or insisting on one particular financing scheme?

  • SKU MD (unverified)

    Kari: it's more like $64 billion in lost market capitalization, if you assume a 15% haircut on the top 5 U.S. listed pharmaceuticals. If you add in the top 20, plus all the start-up and emerging biotechs that will file bankruptcy, and assume the related healthcare stocks (like General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Boston Scientific, Medtronic, Baxter, etc) go down less than 15%, it's very easy to model more than $200 billion in lost market cap with socialized healthcare.

  • Bert S. (unverified)

    Well, yeah the mansion is not very populist looking. But I don't hold it against him.

    In our system, if you want to succeed in politics you've gotta have parties, entertain, hold shin-digs and fundraisers. You also need a safeplace headquarters for your entourage.

    But, there is a progressive way to have any rich person conform to populist policies.


    Don't like that Edwards has a big house. Treat him like anyone else in a high income bracket. And let's have policies to assure that he's paying more proportionately.

    After Bush, there's a lot of catching up to do.

    Those revenues can then be used for fund schools, health care, food stamps, housing for the homeless and a safety net.

    If Edwards tries to get out of paying taxes and/or does not support progressive tax policies, then you can call him on his populist image.

    On a similar note, Hannity on Fox News always takes an easy pot shot at Bobby Kennedy for being an environmentalist but using a private jet to get around.

    Well, yeah, it's kind of contradictory. But Hannity is just playing a cheap trick.

    If we're concerned about the environmental impacts, we should treat Kennedy like anyone else. Let's establish high BTU taxes as an incentive for conservation. Then, we could use the added revenues to fund environmental programs and more.

  • (Show?)

    Thanks, SKU MD, I should have made clear that my number is a seat-of-the-pants guesstimate -- not a hard number.

  • Bert S. (unverified)

    Kari provokingly asked: "What's more important: achieving universal health care - or insisting on one particular financing scheme?"

    To which I ask:

    Is there an example of a large country that achieves universal healthcare without single payer?

    Well, I know it's not authoritative, but Wikipedia say NO.

    If true, I don't think the US track record bodes well for us potentially being the exception to the rule.

    A new system, notwithstanding likely efficiencies, will not result in all those people loosing their livelihoods. A very large number would likely be absorbed into the public system.

    Mergers and changes in ownership happen all the time.

    We can handle the change, especially given the added security that we would all enjoy.

  • Bert S. (unverified)

    Sorry, after reading that Wikipedia article a little more closely, I am no longer certain what it concludes. I was a bit too hasty there. I guess it's time to go to sleep. No more blogging for me tonight.

  • pedro (unverified)

    "As well, he is the only serious candidate that I've heard say they support public-financing of elections."

    actually, obama is big on campaign finance reform, read about it at tom

  • (Show?)

    Bert, I think you're probably looking at this sentence in Wikipedia - Some theorists claim universal health care could be accomplished via private enterprise, without government regulation of the health care industry, but no completely private system currently exists.

    And that's true. And I don't believe anyone is arguing for a "completely" private system. Senator Wyden, for example, would keep Medicare in place. He'd also have the government subsidize 100% of the health care costs for people under the poverty line - and a partial subsidy scaling up to 400% of poverty.

    (Full disclosure: I'm helping Senator Wyden out with a website that promotes his health care plan, among other things.)

  • Betsy Wilson (unverified)

    Of course, if all that money and jobs aren't spent on health care administration, perhaps businesses currently weighed down by all the costs of health care could hire more people. Who knows? They might even get more competitive in the international market and export fewer jobs.

    The whole idea that we're holding onto a crappy system because it has jobs and market capitalization doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

  • (Show?)

    I know that Paul Krugman, who's all about single payer, respects Edwards' plan, which means a lot to me. I agree with the pundits saying Edwards benefits from Clinton - Obama "knife fighting" as TIME put it. Edwards' and Wyden's plan both, as I understand it, essentially prohibit insurance companies from cherry-picking ... which come to think of it might eliminate jobs of people whose sad task it is to screen out bad risks. hopefully we can find other things for those folks to do.

  • Patrick (unverified)

    if Gore doesn't step in, Edwards totally has my vote. I just hope that by the time the primaries get to us, the mainstream media hasn't already pushed him aside with 'all clinton/obama' coverage

  • (Show?)

    Any presidential candidate who takes any foreign policy option "off the table" is undeserving of election. There are far too many intangibles there. That's not being "hawkish," it's pandering to isolationism.

    You have to look at the record. If you don't think bombing Iran would be wise, than which Democratic candidate do you think is least likely to choose that option?

  • Bert S. (unverified)

    Committing to peaceful resolution of conflicts is not "pandering to isolationism." Au contraire, you'd work through international institutions MUCH MORE diligently to achieve peace.

    Putting a moratorium on preemptive war with Iran would make a lot of sense and would be a sign of appropriate leadership given the context of the last 6+ years.

    Many congressional leaders are talking about doing just that, and we should support them.

    We've lost any ability we had to make policy informed by intelligence, rational perspective or the general public interest. Leaders from Colin Powell on up lied to justify the war. Enough Dems looked and continue to look the other way.

    Given the corrosion of our institutions, I'd say there is more than ample justification for taking some foreign policy options off the table. Changing the presidential administration is a good first step. But there would be a lot more work to do to reform our institutions.

    What we need is serious and disciplined peacemaking.

  • Colin Mincy (unverified)

    So only a poor underprivileged person can tackle poverty. You have to dine daily on Ramen Noodles or Campbell's tomato soup (if they are on sale) to speak out against the shrinking middle class or worse thousands of children who go to bed starving...and even more who have no access to the healthcare they need to sustain a healthy childhood.

    John Edwards may be wealthy, and so he bough a big damn house…but to say because of that he isn’t genuine about helping the poor is absurd. John Kerry, the nominee in 2004 was rolling in it through his own money and that of his wife, heiress to the Heinz money tree. There is a difference however on their respective credibility when it comes to tackling the poor and achieving healthcare for more, if not all. John Kerry talked about it, and John Edwards lived it. Trial lawyer…yes he was, but he won case after case helping the little man fight the big bureaucratic insurance companies and corporate giants that preyed on the helpless. And his wife spent years dedicating her time and efforts to philanthropic causes. He’s financed college education for the underprivileged, birthed an educational cause for poverty at his alma mater, and he’s the first candidate on either side of the aisle to lay out any kind of universal healthcare plan.

    The reason we’re stuck with George Bush for 8 years is because people don’t apply a reasonable amount of common sense and effort in truly examining a candidate. Where a candidate lives doesn’t make a damn worth of difference in what kind of President he can be. Our current President lives on a farm ranch in Crawford, Texas and has done more to harm the unwealthy than help them. John Kerry had more residences than many candidates combined and his ability to tackle poverty was not questioned to this degree. Politics is negative and nasty because that’s what we portray about politics in our comments. If you don’t favor a candidate and you don’t have a good reason than keep it to yourself. It saves you from the embarrassment of plucking baseless excuses from think air like “his house is too big to care about poverty,” “or he’s too wealthy to be a populist.” It also saves people like me the aggravation of having to absorb these ridiculous attitudes.

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