Why the Progressive Movement Needs to Unite Behind John Edwards
By Hank Edson
At the end of last summer, I proposed in two sequential opinion pieces that perhaps John Edwards was the man progressives should rally around in order to have the most beneficial impact on our direction as a nation. (See Edwards, Does He Mean It? and Edwards/Kucinch 2008?) At that time, however, we were still months away from the primaries and many readers were not persuaded by my argument. I am hoping that following this weekend’s New Hampshire democratic presidential campaign debate, the time may now be ripe for an organized effort to demonstrate unified progressive endorsement of John Edwards for President of the United States.
Saturday night saw four democratic candidates at the debate podiums: John Edwards, Barrack Obama, Bill Richardson, and Hillary Clinton, from left to right across the TV screen. Each candidate urged the voters to apply a different standard in selecting who should be President. Roughly put, the candidates made the following claims:
Edwards argued that what mattered was whether the candidate had a personal commitment to reclaiming for the people the power stolen by corporate special interests.
Obama argued what mattered was whether the candidate could rally the American people to support an agenda for change.
Richardson argued what mattered was whether the candidate had the independence and experience required to build effective political coalitions for getting things done.
Clinton argued that what mattered was whether the candidate had a record of actually making change happen.
Here’s why we all need to get behind the Edwards campaign today with an unprecedented demonstration of energy and organization as a progressive movement:
First, consider Hillary Clinton: While Clinton is justifiably proud of her husband’s success in balancing the budget after inheriting the monstrous Reagan/Bush deficit, this was an act of fiscal common sense, not an act of democratic vision. It may have taken real strength and intelligence to take on the special interests opposed to the measures necessary to balance the budget, but it did not take a moral commitment to justice and liberty for all. If our country was a corporation, Bill Clinton might be regarded as the best leader we ever had, but our country is much more than a corporation. Our country is, or at least was intended to be, an advance in the level of humanity achieved by society. For John Edwards, this commitment to our humanity is personal; to the Clintons, this commitment has been negotiable.
When we look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for instance, we find that a large number of the pollsters, lobbyists, advisers, and funders who surround her have been doing business with the very same corporate special interests she claims her husband stood up to in balancing the budget. The difference between the challenges that faced our nation when Clinton’s husband was running for president and those that face our nation today is that in Bill Clinton’s day, the foremost challenge was fiscal. As James Carville said, it was the economy, stupid. But today the challenge we face and the main issue of the campaign has changed. As John Edwards makes clear, it’s our democracy, (stupid).
Understanding this, it matters not whether we apply the standard offered by Clinton or by Edwards because Clinton fails on both counts. Her record of achieving change is not based on a commitment to democratic principle and therefore it is not a record of the type of change we need. Likewise, her partnership with corporate special interests demonstrates that her commitment to change is not personal. Rather than challenge the powers-that-be, she is willing to make compromises with them in order to count herself among them. If either assessment was incorrect, Clinton would not have accepted the fundraising support of people like Rupert Murdoch, corporatist corrupter of the political process and owner of Fox News.
Next, Consider Obama: Obama’s performance in Saturday Night’s debate was revealing. At one point, he lamely resorted to arguing that “words do matter” because words rally the American people to make real change. In so doing, Obama offered the American people the idea of words without actually committing himself to any specific words that could be evaluated by the quality of their meaning and good sense. Instead, Obama implied that the value of his words had already been proven by the phenomenal response his campaign has received from the American people.
When Obama did actually commit himself to specific words that detailed his policy platform, his ideas were nearly indistinguishable from those of his opponents and his manner of delivering them was polished, but hardly inspiring. Using just about any criteria one might want to apply, Obama fails to demonstrate the same personal commitment and passion that Edwards commands.
The plain truth is that ever since Obama rose to prominence at the 2004 Democratic Convention, the people have loved the idea of him, not any particular thing he personally actually stands for. Obama confessed to this fact at the debate when he resorted to arguing that the best candidate for the presidency is the candidate who can rally the people, rather than the one who will fight for the people. Meaningful political change cannot transpire in the same manner as a fashion or a fad; it arises in response to entrenched corruption and requires a fully engaged personal commitment to equality and justice. Obama may have a way with words, but he has failed to communicate that there is anything he is really fighting against or anything he is really fighting for. It’s not as if he’s lacking for an opportunity to fight, he simply hasn’t picked up the gauntlet.
It’s time for progressives to make clear that change doesn’t happen by throwing a rally, but by taking a principled and passionate stand against the powers-that-be. Obama can point out the mistakes made by the powers-that-be more eloquently than many, but only Edwards shows any sign of having the grit to both take and strike the kind of blows that come in a real struggle for power.
Only Edwards indicates that he understands this election is about a real struggle for power. Once more the urgent refrain: It’s our democracy, stupid.
Last, consider Richardson: Richardson argues that what the American people really want is for politicians to put aside partisan differences and get things done. As an outsider to Washington, Richardson claims to be free of Washington D.C.’s partisan culture. One problem with this is that George W. Bush argued exactly the same thing in 2000. We know how that turned out. The more serious problem with this argument is that the differences that really define this election are not issues of partisanship, they are issues of principle.
We have no fear of a “partisan democrat;” indeed, we are clamoring for a leader with a back bone. But we do want that back bone to be straight and strong. We want our politicians to honestly and strenuously defend our democratic principles. We need someone who can and will fight for these principles against anti-democratic corporatists, religious authoritarians, and industrial militarists. It’s serious on an emotional level. That’s why we say, it’s our democracy, stupid, that this election is all about. Edwards is the only candidate who is showing us he gets it. Now we have to get that this is our chance to get behind a candidate who can make a difference.
John Edwards: The time is now. The field has been narrowed. Edwards has made it to the primaries as a very real contender. He is raising the level of political discourse to match the very serious issues that face our society. He is demonstrating, not just a superior intellectual approach to the issues, but also a personal and emotional engagement that indicates a true commitment to principle. He has a demonstrated record of outstanding abilities and a personal history that both give the voter reason to further credit the sincerity of his discourse.
Indeed, Edwards’ political discourse has provided an opportunity for prominent voices on the Progressive Left to endorse his candidacy based on very pure statements of principle. If the Progressive Left organizes a formal and substantial endorsement of Edwards’ campaign, we can use this endorsement to frame the issues of the campaign based on democratic principles that are even more egalitarian and just than those Edwards has so far championed. As a progressive movement, this is the moment when we can use Edwards’ strength to set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
We will not find ourselves better positioned in a month to have this influence, nor in two months or three. If we miss this moment, we will likely be giving up the 2008 election to the mediocrity that arises from a lack of personal commitment to democratic principles. Obama’s meteoric success and Clinton’s battle tested survival instincts are ripe grounds for such mediocrity. By contrast, everything about Edwards’ career and campaign qualify him to be a true people’s champion. He knows where he came from. He worked hard to get where he is. He has substantial talent and intelligence. And he has put himself forward like a genuine leader. Let’s get behind him and make him ours.