Populism’s Candidate

Populism’s Candidate

No matter who wins the Democratic election, the John Edwards campaign has set the domestic agenda for the entire field.


Berlin, New Hampshire

This mill town of 10,000 people lies about ten miles from the Maine border. For more than a hundred years its sole economic engine was the paper mill that sits on the Androscoggin River; but like the other paper mill towns in the area, it’s been brought low by the sledgehammer of creative destruction. In 2006 the owners closed the mill and laid off its 250 workers, and last year they detonated three of the four smokestacks. You can watch them die on YouTube, pitching over in slow motion like trees falling under the ax.

At 2 am on the Monday before the New Hampshire primary, about two dozen John Edwards supporters stood outside a fire station in downtown Berlin awaiting the arrival of the candidate and his wife as they crisscrossed the state in a final thirty-six-hour push. Murray Rogers, president of the Steelworkers local in the area, was one of those who came out in the middle of the night to greet the Edwardses, holding a sign and flanked by two of his fellow union members. After working for thirty-six years in the Wausau paper mill, one town over in Groveton, he lost his job along with 300 others when it was closed December 31. Edwards’s people “were the first ones there,” Rogers told me as we stood outside the firehouse. “They offered to come and help us. He wrote a letter to the CEO because of the poor severance package they gave us, on our behalf. None of the others even offered to come. It’s a pretty strong message to us who cares and who doesn’t.”

The triumph of global capital and crony capitalism over the past several decades has created a country of Silicon Valleys and Berlins, SoHo lofts and storm-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward bungalows. The last time Edwards ran for President, he called this the “Two Americas” and promised to stitch them together. But from the day Edwards announced this campaign in the Lower Ninth, he has presented himself as a warrior for one of those Americas as it fights to wrest back some of the ill-gotten gains from the other one–the “moneyed interests” and “entrenched corporate power” that have a “stranglehold on our democracy.”

This populism makes the establishment media uncomfortable: consummate Beltway pundit Stuart Rothenberg recently worried in a column that the stock market would tank the day after Edwards was elected. When the Des Moines Register endorsed Hillary Clinton, it chided the 2008 populist incarnation of Edwards for his “harsh anti-corporate rhetoric.” But “harsh” pretty accurately sums up the country’s judgment of the past seven years. In New Hampshire exit polls, two-thirds of Democrats and half of Republican voters said they were “angry” with the Bush Administration. The economy was the top issue in both parties, with nine out of ten voters expressing anxiety about it. All of which should redound to Edwards’s benefit. The coalition envisioned by his campaign would stack different classes atop one another until the sum towered over a conservative minority of plutocrats. It would bring together the urban poor, the working poor in far-flung exurbs, the white working class in shuttered mill towns and the deeply anxious college-educated middle class. But it has been unable to put such a coalition together. When election day had come and gone, Edwards managed only 23 percent even on the favorable terrain of Berlin; Hillary Clinton won the town easily with 50 percent of the vote.

Edwards and his campaign point out that they’ve been fighting uphill: out-fundraised and outspent in Iowa six to one (probably closer to three to one, when independent 527 expenditures are figured in) and constantly contending with a press corps that, in the words of one Edwards staffer, “has never found a place for us in their story.” These disadvantages are compounded by the shortcomings of Edwards’s message. He almost never, unprompted, says a word about foreign policy; his pugilism can get the better of him (as when he took a cheap, sexist shot at Clinton for tearing up); and his stump speech, sharp and focused and righteous as it may be, is also so full of pathos it prompted something close to muted despair in me every time I heard it. Watching Nataline Sarkisyan’s family give a raw, emotional account of their daughter’s death in a hospital after Cigna waited too long to approve a liver transplant, I felt like someone had driven a railroad spike through my sternum. I couldn’t imagine calling voters or knocking on doors or even going to polls. And I don’t think it was just me. Unlike at Obama and Clinton rallies, where the crowds cheer at the slightest provocation, during most of Edwards’s stump speech you can hear a pin drop. It’s a bit like attending a funeral for the American dream.

New Hampshire proved that writing off campaigns or predicting outcomes is a mug’s game. But no matter who wins the Democratic nomination, the fact remains that the Edwards campaign has set the domestic policy agenda for the entire field. He was the first with a bold universal healthcare plan, the first with an ambitious climate change proposal that called for cap-and-trade, and the leader on reforming predatory lending practices and raising the minimum wage to a level where it regains its lost purchasing power. Edwards’s rhetoric has started to bleed into his rivals’ speeches as well. “Too many have been invisible for too long,” Clinton said in her victory speech Tuesday night. “Well, you are not invisible to me. The oil companies, the drug companies, the health insurance companies, the predatory student loan companies have had seven years of a President who stands up for them. It’s time we had a President who stands up for all of you.”

Edwards maintains that he’s not going anywhere, saying that fighting corporate power on behalf of working people is the “cause of my life.” Senior campaign adviser Joe Trippi stresses that the campaign is lean enough that it can continue through the convention, picking up delegates along the way, but the endgame for that strategy is unclear. Ultimately, though, the Edwards campaign has been both a campaign and a cause, with the latter outperforming the former. Few remember that the signature economic policy of Bill Clinton’s presidency, balancing the budget, originated as a plank in the platform of his primary rival Paul Tsongas. If the next Democratic President manages to pass universal healthcare or a carbon cap-and-trade, we’ll owe the Edwards campaign a significant debt.

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