Cornbread and Roses
Just before the Opportunity Rocks tour took flight, BusinessWeek Online broke the news that Edwards, who had been vowing to "pour everything I've got into this cause," had been hired as a "global consultant" for Fortress Investment Group, a global asset-management firm. So while he set out to inspire college students, Edwards found himself answering a fresh batch of hard questions. "This is another thing that I'm doing that'll take a relatively small amount of time," he protested after the UNC speech. "It's an opportunity for me to explore sort of what's happening with the global economy." Asked another hard question--Is it realistic to talk about "eradicating" poverty?--Edwards resorts to pie-in-the-sky. "Of course it's realistic," he says, flashing an incredulous look. "It's completely realistic. I don't see the eradication of poverty here in this country as this huge, mammoth thing."
Edwards is far more persuasive when asked whether his antipoverty campaign is just a political tool. "Look, to be honest, it's all very personal for me. I've seen everything, been everything, from poor to lower middle class, then regular middle class and then just skyrocketing, you know, when I was a lawyer. What happened to me is that I started thinking as I got older about this. I saw some of the people I'd grown up with going the other way, getting in trouble, having a really terrible time getting by. These were my friends when I was growing up and here I was, doing great. It was no great policy revelation, just a sense that something was wrong, that, Why am I the one who's gotten the good luck and they didn't?"
While Edwards insists that his latest campaign "ought to be nonpartisan," its success in keeping him in the national limelight will determine whether he can make a viable charge at Hillary Clinton in 2008. In one recent poll Clinton led the likely pack of Democratic contenders with 42 percent; Edwards was a distant second at 14. "I wouldn't put much stock in that, though," says Ferrel Guillory. "For all you read about Hillary Clinton, she's not scaring away contenders. She's going to lead in the polls right up till the primaries start, because she's the celebrity. But the people making her out to be inevitable are Republicans. They'd love nothing better, especially in the South."
Edwards has a leg up in a survey that may mean more. According to a Pew Center poll released in late October, his favorability rating among Democrats not only bests Hillary's, 68 to 59 percent, but even that of the original Clinton, Bill, who stands at 64. And while John Kerry's unfavorable rating is a sad 48 percent among the Democrats who just last year nominated him for President, Edwards's "unfavorable" is easily the lowest, at 32--and the survey showed he's the best liked, and least loathed, among Republicans and independents, too.
Up against Clinton II's New Democratic moderation, Edwards might end up grappling with a once-unthinkable perception of him as--ye gods!--an old-style liberal, more worried about the plight of poor black folk than struggling white folk. "His message has to make sense to middle-class voters," says Guillory. "He has to have the 'moral values' component, but he also has to be hardheaded. To be effective in terms of politics and poverty, you have to come at it counterintuitively. Clinton did that."
The time could be ripe for an economic populism that goes beyond Clinton's piecemeal approach. "Circumstances beyond John's control may have elevated his central issue of poverty to where it can catapult him politically," says Steve Jarding. "Those images from New Orleans, not unlike when the planes hit the towers in New York--they'll be seared into people's minds for a while. America was embarrassed by it. We've been told for so long that the government is the enemy. Now people see that we need it; it's just not working."
Edwards's great challenge, finally, may be convincing the skeptical millions that he's the one who can make things work. "He's raised poverty to a presidential-level conversation for the first time in forty years," says Guillory. "You've got to give him credit for that. And given the shallowness of his experience in politics, the way he vaulted right over the lower rungs of the ladder--it's an amazing story. But now that he's there, he's got to do more than make us laugh and make us cry. He's got to paint a clearer picture of where he's going to take the country."