There was brutal irony in the live coverage of John Edwards’s exit from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Perhaps the story would have been different if the media–which in January gave Edwards only a quarter of the coverage accorded Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton–had paid more attention to what the former North Carolina senator was saying and doing. In its closing days, his campaign achieved rare moments of connection in a political year that has already seen too much division. In his native South Carolina, Edwards climbed atop makeshift stages with actor Danny Glover and bluegrass star Ralph Stanley for events that featured muscular anticorporate appeals for economic justice but invariably finished on the sweetest of notes: with African-American and white Democrats joining hands to sing “Amazing Grace.” There was a raw beauty to these moments–a beauty that merited more than the cursory coverage and “who’s he hurting” speculation that was the lot of the man who spoke for “the grown-up wing of the Democratic Party.”
After his third-place finish in South Carolina, Edwards knew he would not be the Democratic nominee. Within the Edwards camp, strategy sessions turned toward discussions of whether he could be a kingmaker in the race between Obama and Clinton. With the 300 delegates he might have won by soldiering on through Super Tuesday, Edwards could conceivably have held the balance of power at a closely divided Democratic National Convention. Presumably he would have aided Obama, whose candidacy holds more promise of healing the divisions between the “two Americas” Edwards sees as pulling the country apart. But even as Edwards spoiled Clinton’s math in key states–in South Carolina, he won among white men–he had little taste for the petty politics of positioning and power plays. That was evident in what turned out to be the last debate of his campaign, when he was supposed to be a spectator but instead emerged on top. As Obama tied Clinton to Wal-Mart and Clinton linked Obama to a slumlord, Edwards asked, “This kind of squabbling–how many children is this going to get healthcare? How many people are going to get an education from this?”
That was a sharp line. But Edwards followed up with a deeper message, which will be needed throughout a Democratic campaign that runs the constant risk of being more about image than substance: “We have got to understand that this is not about us personally. It is about what we are trying to do for this country and what we believe in.” Those words rang true because the steadiness of the speaker’s focus during this campaign had led even cynical Democrats to the conclusion reached by Martin Luther King III, who told Edwards, “You have almost single-handedly made poverty an issue in this election.” Despite all the talk of $400 haircuts and disappointing past positions, in the end there was a sense that Edwards had earned the right to talk about his vision for his party and his country.
Edwards shaped the 2008 race, offering the first universal healthcare plan from a major contender, proposing the first economic stimulus package, making an issue of war profiteering. And he was heard. Obama’s rhetoric has grown more powerful and effective as he has borrowed Edwards’s policies as well as his populist phrasing. And when Clinton tells urban audiences she is campaigning to help Americans “lift yourself and your family out of poverty,” it is impossible to miss the Edwards echo. Even Republicans like Mike Huckabee sounded like they’d been reading Edwards’s position papers on trade policy. Now, as a noncandidate, Edwards can and should continue to shape the race. The desire of Clinton and Obama for his endorsement will get his phone calls answered. But perhaps an Edwards endorsement is of less consequence than his continuing presence. Forget the empty speculation about him as a vice presidential prospect; Edwards’s best role will be as the voice of conscience for a party that has yet to recognize that its historic commitment to economic justice must be renewed in a time of recession.
Before Edwards ended his candidacy, his aides had talked about using a core of delegates to influence this summer’s convention and the fall campaign it will launch. To the extent that Edwards pulls the front-runners toward his more progressive economic positions–from his unequivocal opposition to the free-trade regime, to his proposal for public works programs as one response to the economic downturn, to his smart plan to expand Medicaid as a first step toward healthcare reform–he gives Democrats the muscular message they’ll need to counter Republican attempts to benefit John McCain by framing the election as a referendum on national security. Edwards campaigned for the Democratic nomination not only on his own behalf but in the hope that he might redefine his party as a counterbalance to the corporate power that defines the Republican Party. He has ended his formal candidacy, but he ought not to stop his campaign to persuade Democrats to embrace his message that “economic justice in America is our cause.”