Cornbread and Roses
But will that message fly among the evangelical voters who've twice put George W. Bush over the top? "Shoot," says Edwards. "I could go right now to just about any church in Alabama or Georgia and speak about poverty, and I know people will respond." Ferrel Guillory, a longtime political reporter who now runs the UNC Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, says that might be--in typical Edwards fashion--a bit too optimistic. "Edwards is not going to appeal to the religious right," Guillory says. "But he could make a strong appeal to 'values voters' who are not hard-core conservatives."
Steve Jarding, the rural strategist who set fundraising records running Edwards's PAC in 2002 before leaving the campaign in frustration, thinks his moral spin on the "two Americas" message has real potential in Middle America. "Let's face it: There are millions of families sitting down at the table tonight, parents working two or three jobs and struggling to survive. Are they sitting there saying, Thank God two gay people aren't getting married? or, I'm so glad the girl down the street can't get an abortion? That's not what's tearing their families apart. If Edwards will stand up and tell them that, he could change the turf."
Lesson Three is also about changing the turf: Democrats, who've now lost every state in the nation's largest region in two straight elections, have to take their message south. "Look," Edwards says, "the fact is, if you lose the whole South, you've got almost no margin of error in the rest of the country. But it's more than that. We have to make it clear we've got a vision for the whole country, not just blue states."
Edwards won't criticize his 2004 running mate, Kerry, who declared even before the Democratic primaries that he believed a Democrat could win without going south--and then tried to make good on that belief, pulling Democratic national money, along with the Southerner he tapped for Vice President, out of every Southern state but Florida. Bush ended up winning every Southern state--except Edwards's North Carolina--by a larger margin than in 2000. "If you were in a state like Alabama last year," Edwards acknowledges, "you didn't hardly know we were running."
Conventional wisdom says that an antipoverty, pro-labor campaign would be approximately as popular in the South as William Tecumseh Sherman (or Senator Kerry). But the new-model John Edwards is all about flouting conventional Democratic thinking. And Guillory, for one, believes economic populism can work in Dixie as textile mills and furniture factories continue to close down. "There's a heightened awareness of economic peril and dislocation in the South, resulting from shifts in the job market," he says. "There's a greater awareness that the affluence and growth has not been evenly distributed, that it's been a kind of creative destruction--creating and destroying at the same time."
But Edwards has to broaden his focus beyond poverty to make his populist message a winner at the polls. "It's not just about the poor," says Pete MacDowell. "Where is he on healthcare, jobs policy, urban policy, immigration, creating jobs with alternative energy sources--all these issues where the Democrats have just been saying and doing zero?"
Edwards says his New America Initiative will address the middle-class squeeze as well as poverty. But he thinks the key to Southern votes involves something that transcends policy positions. "These are the kinds of people that respond to strength and leadership," he says. "They want leaders who have the backbone to stand up for something. We're not Republicans. When we try to be some lighter version of what we are, which is what happens over and over, it's devastating to Democrats. Why would they choose us?"
For Democrats looking to 2008, of course, the question is somewhat different: Why choose Edwards? For all the cogency of his diagnosis of what ails the Democrats, and all the undeniable passion of his antipoverty campaign, even Edwards's admirers wonder whether he's chosen the right pilot program for "thinking big again." And even as he drowns those "insincerity" and "shallowness" whispers in a sea of noble intentions and bright proposals, Edwards still manages to revive the old, stubborn doubts.