The Progressive John Edwards Should Run
by Matt Stoller, Sun Dec 24, 2006 at 12:16:01 PM EST
Let's talk 2008. John Edwards wants advice from people on his email list on whether he should run for President, and so this is what I'm going to send him.
We haven't seen an opening this big for a genuinely progressive Presidency since 1932. There's a non-Southern Democratic Congress to work with, a strong populist economic strain, a thorough repudiation of a failed conservative movement, a disgraced corporate elite, new tools for organizing and governance, a strongly liberal mainstream culture, and a real liberal, energized, and confident base. In The Bar Fight Primary, I tried to sketch out a test that I use in trying to figure out whether a candidate can really be that great President. The question is whether this figure will challenge an entrenched power center in the campaign, and then as President work to create a different and more progressive constitutional order. If no, then the country will continue to muddle into collapse. If yes, then we can return America to a path of strength through wisdom. While it's true that the American people are tired of bullying politics, and Obama is a symbol of that fatigue, the bullies themselves aren't tired of looting, lying, and murder. I wish they were and we could go back to a sane bipartisan consensus, but like most of us who turned to the blogs I'm a pragmatist. I'm not saying that the tone must be confrontational, only that there must be conflict.
So let's talk John Edwards. First let me say that I like John Edwards. I like his wife, Elizabeth, and I like everyone I've met from his campaign. They are in general good people trying to do the right thing. I respect Edwards' theme of Two Americas, and I respect that he's announcing his decision to run in New Orleans. There's a genuine thematic unity to his Presidential run, one he's refined since his turn leftward in 2003. He's been there for unions, and that's power based on organizing and people, and not media emptiness. I've gone through his speeches, and he has talked real substance on economic growth, foreign policy, and poverty.
In fact, a number of my progressive friends are working for or advising John Edwards in some capacity or other. The calculation is that Senator Clinton is awful, Obama isn't fully formed, and Edwards is the only possible candidate who can win and govern as a progressive. As you know, I think Obama should run for President. I think he'll lose and possibly grow into a principled and effective progressive instead of a cautious cipher. As for Hillary Clinton, one of the reasons I think she'll be an awful President is because she's lived in a Davos bubble since 1992, and has basically no idea what modern America is like. She hasn't actually lived here for over fifteen years.
John Edwards, despite all his signals towards progressive ideals over the last few years, confounds me. On the one hand, he knows he must run as a progressive through the primary. It's clear from his speeches that he no longer believes in third way politics. He's made poverty a central issue in his life, and he campaigned for candidates we like, such as as Larry Kissell. On the other hand, he was a DLC-style politician in the Senate, he voted for the war, and he hasn't as far as I can tell put himself in a position to fight alongside progressives on some major battle. Reagan, for instance, was an ally of reactionary conservative Jesse Helms and chaired a New Right committee against the Panama Canal treaty (which passed in 1977), and that was before he became the standard-bearer for conservatives as the Republican nominee.
Edwards has fought some smaller battles alongside progressives helping unions out with his celebrity and raising money for state candidates, and he has put poverty on the map. And as a relatively liberal Senator from a fairly conservative North Carolina, I can overlook his lack of liberal heroics during his time in the Senate, and respect his time as a trial lawyer fighting against corrupted corporate elites. After all, Reagan's record as Governor of California was not ideologically coherent, though he was brought to power as a reaction against the Berkeley Free Speech movement and beat a liberal powerhouse in Pat Brown. I see in Edwards and his family a desire to be liked and a genuine respect for people. They don't reflexively dislike dirty hippy liberals, which is a big plus since that's actually the main cleavage in the party in a lot of ways. In fact Edwards admitted he was wrong on the war, which still distinguishes him positively. It brings him firmly into the American mainstream and out of the Beltway elite.
Now here's the problem, and it's a huge one. I see in John Edwards an aversion to any sort of conflict and a lack of killer instinct - just look at his debate with Dick Cheney in 2004. In his speeches, Edwards is constantly upbraiding us to live up to our progressive ideals, but he rarely talks of the opponents to our ideals. As far as I can tell, he is unwilling to take on entrenched centers of reactionary power, believing, or rather hoping, that a genuine desire for the country to unify around someone necessarily means the bullies will just move out of the way. Reagan unified the country against liberals, and the opportunity exists for Edwards to unify the country against conservatives. But he hasn't as far as I can tell made a move to do that. I worry that as a result of this lack of killer instinct the Edwards' value good deeds over fighting injustice and loyalty over competence.
So in thinking about whether Edwards should run for President, or whether you should work for him or support him, here's what I would say. Tell me one time he's risked a piece of his political career to stand up to the right. Give me one example of where he led, one fight where he had to prove he's with us. Oh sure he talks a good game about poverty, but will he actually call out the bad actors or work to identify villains and fight them? I can offer you a good example of how he could betray us, aside from the massively important war vote. He said in late July and August that he'd come to Connecticut to help Lamont and the three Connecticut candidates, and then backed out afterwards when he was no longer under scrutiny. Towards the end of the campaign, he wouldn't even issue a statement against Lieberman. He knows, as we do, that that was a real litmus test, and he chose them over us. His inner circle encompasses people like Nick Baldick, who, while a smart guy, was also employed at Dewey Square, the resting place for Democratic Presidential campaign managers who betray us on issues like net neutrality in the off-season to make a little extra. (Nick's got a defender in the comments.) This instinctive cautious strain cuts through his political operation. I once asked his communications director who his allies in the House are regarding povery, and she said 'Al Wynn', who is one of the key right-wing Democrats pushing through the Bankruptcy Bill, the Energy Bill, and the COPE Act, and who stole an election from a real progressive, Donna Edwards. It was a thoughtless, stupid comment, but it was a comment borne of a genuine illiberal instinct, a desire to suck up to existing power centers. It was also incompetent, which doesn't speak particularly well of his operation (though that could change with his new campaign manager David Bonior).
To overgeneralize for a bit, the identity of progressive left on the internet is based on a set of assumptions about the country. We feel betrayed by various elites, and we feel that only by standing up to bad actors can we set things right. That means that the way to generate real support is to stand up to bad actors in an overt way, and show that you are willing to make enemies of the bullies. We are not the be all and end all of the primaries, we are an avant garde of the primary voting universe. There are real strategic reasons to reject our support as unnecessary or problematic. But right now, John Edwards needs us to win, and he doesn't have us. And he won't get us until he shows that he's more than a candidate who's against poverty, and he's actually a progressive who stands with us against the evil actors who steal from the poor and are actually for poverty.
John Edwards talks like a progressive, and he should run for President if he's actually going to be upholding progressive values in doing so. Will he do so? I don't know, that's up to him. I hope so, but then again, why isn't he a leading voice on the escalation in Iraq, for instance? If he isn't willing to really steel himself and fight this fight for ten years, then he shouldn't run. And since this is a discussion among everyone on his email list, I'll broaden it.
If you are working for or supporting Edwards you should figure out whether he's the John Edwards who wants to deal with poverty in a real way, or whether he's the John Edwards who voted for the war. Give yourself six months or some arbitrary amount of time, mentally, and say that if he doesn't prove himself to be on our side in some fundamental way that you'll go elsewhere. I'm not sure what that proof is, but it will certainly mean that he will have to engage in some fight that requires sacrifice and risk on his part, and a fight with an entrenched reactionary power center. If he isn't willing to take risks to change the country, then his talent and his supporters' talent will be wasted, and energy that could go to Edwards 2008 ought to be building a progressive America in some other way.
What do you think? Should he run?