What Edwards is About
by david mizner, Tue Oct 23, 2007 at 10:00:02 AM EDT
You should not be president if you do not acknowledge the divisions that threaten our economy, our society and our soul.
We bloggers who write about the primary tend to lose perspective. Oh, we're better than the mainstream media--we don't obsess over frivolousness--but we get sidetracked, distracted. We're too close. We see everything and nothing. We seldom see the forest of the big stories for the trees of two-day stories. We discern weighty meaning in small things. We focus on process, inside-baseball, and esoterica. On moments and quotable quotes. On whose press release is strongest, on who's first, on who finds the most creative clean way of calling Bill O'Reilly an asshole.
On who's doing well. We like to think we're free from the MSM's fixation on the horse race--on poll numbers, buzz, fundraising totals--but we're not. We gush over smart political moves, over well-crafted spin and message discipline. Despite ourselves we ascribe moral worth to success, as if there were a correlation between popularity and morality, as if lofty poll numbers reflected character, as if the most enlightened campaigns didn't normally lose. We mistake winners for winners.
The other day, in this thread, Taylor Marsh, criticized Edwards for focusing on poverty before he had constructed his narrative. When I argued that if it was a mistake, it was an admirable one, Marsh said:
Poverty is a critically important issue, but not as important as crafting an Edwards narrative first.
Got that? Poverty is less important than crafting a narrative. Like I said, we lose perspective. So, what is it that we bloggers miss? The core of the campaigns, their essence, their undelying values and worldview. Who the candidates are, or at least, who they want to be. We focus on plot at the expense of theme.
I was reminded of this by, of all people, Garance Franke-Ruta. I say, "of all people," because I've been harshly critical of her writing in the past. She's a pro-Hillary blogger who claims without evidence that the hositlity to Hillary among male bloggers derives from sexism. But unlike most bloggers, unlike me, Franke Ruta does actual on-the-ground reporting. She went to Iowa and filed a report:
Located in what Des Moines sophisticates call the armpit of Iowa, Keokuk is wedged between Illinois and Missouri on a spit of land heading south off the bottom of Iowa's flat border into the triangle where the mighty Mississippi meets its tributary Iowa River. The massive changes our economy has undergone -- from heavy manufacturing to today's 80 percent service sector -- has left scars across this strip of land. There, for the Edwards' campaign event, a message of economic populism and skepticism of globalization seemed as natural a fit as the hawks that coasted overhead...
"All the river communities in Iowa , it's pretty much industry [that had been the base], and it's tough in these areas economically," Keokuk Chief of Police Thomas L. Crew explained after Edwards finished his pitch. "Overall our population is declining."
The town's steel plant is gone, Crew explained. The grain milling facility now produces corn syrup for a French firm. The automotive parts manufacturer that used to supply General Motors now supplies an Italian company. "All of those things have cut back," he said. And those are the ones still open. "They've gone elsewhere. Some of those plants have gone to Mexico , and they've gone to China and other places."
Edwards, son of a mill worker, is running as the candidate of the places like these, the places time forgot. His challenge, though, in defending a vanishing way of life -- and it was a very good way of life, as I learned at an Ankeny cookout I attended with a unionized John Deere welder whose high school education and more than two decades on the job now put him in the range of a $75,000 salary in an environment where three-bedroom homes can still be had for $200,000 -- is that he himself left it behind more than 30 years ago.
...Yet In jugding Edwards, it's worth recalling Aristotle's conception of virtue, which lies not in our beliefs or intentions, but in the habits and practices that make up our days. Edwards has spent his recent years marching with unions and advocating for economic justice, so that those lucky union employees I met in Iowa could continue to live in placid, well-mown communities, and those unlucky ones struggling with their small jobs at awful chain stores could hope to again live in vibrant communities where young people want to stay.
Edwards may not win the nomination, and he hasn't even won the hearts of the Iowa working class -- an October Des Moines Register poll found Hillary Clinton winning union households -- but he has become, nonetheless, the nation's most important spokesman for a part of America that cannot be seen from the office towers of the coasts, or even those of downtown Des Moines. No matter what happens in Iowa in January, I hope he'll continue to speak up for that America , and help teach others to turn the camera around.
The cynic in me wonders if Franke-Ruta's claim that he's defending a "vanishing way of life" isn't a subtle attempt to marginalize him, if by depicting him as the candidate of the depressed and downtrodden, she hopes to assist Hillary's effort to lay claim to the middle class. (I'd argue that Edwards is the candidate of the poor, the working class, and the middle class--to the extent that those distinctions still matter in Bush's Gilded Age.) But there is undeniably something refreshingly retro about the Edwards campaign. We're not supposed to say that, of course. We're supposed to talk about change and new ideas and bridges to the future, but at the core of his campaign is a concern for people who lack power, the less lucky among us. This is what used to be called liberalism, but that's another thing we're not supposed to say.
"I like Edwards,"Barabara Eherenreich says, "because he's taken up the banner of the little guy and gal in America's grossly one-sided class war." It's not quite as simple as that. Or maybe it is.
I'm not arguing that Obama and Clinton don't care about the unlucky. But it's not what their campaigns are about. Obama is about getting past our partisan squabbles and destructive divisions, about cleaning the crap out of the pipes of our political systen. Clinton is about competence and strength, about fighting the right and helping the middle class. To be sure, there's overlap. If you have one eye on poll numbers and one ear on the pundits, their policy positions can look alike and their rhetoric can sounds similar. (Maybe) But there's a difference in emphasis and committment. It's the difference between talking about something every week and talking about it every day, between asking unions what they'll do for you and asking what you can do for them, between finding as issue an embracing a cause, between seeing economic inequality as a problem and seeing it as a crisis.
It's a crucial difference, even if people don't always recognize it as such. In a column lamenting the lack of differences among the top candidates, Katha Pollitt undermines her own argument:
...[A]lthough nearly three in ten Americans are poor or near-poor, only Edwards has made a campaign issue out of social and economic inequality. Only Edwards seems to grasp the significance of our widening class divisions.
Isn't that enough for you, Katha, that "only Edwards seems to grasp the significance of our widening class divisions? It's enough for me. It seems like exactly the kind of difference that elections should turn on.
Please consider all this in light of the recent news about the Service Workers Union. In typical horserace fashion, the coverage focused on SEIU's non-endorsement of Edwards at the national level. But he was denied a national endorsement only by an accident of geography: Obama and Clinton represent states with powerful SEIUs. Even so, Edwards has more support within the 2-million-person, famously diverse union than the rest of the candidates combined, putting the lie to the claim that his base is white and male. Why do union members support Edwards? Because his policy positions and work on behalf of unions reflect his committment to economic justice. But, the critics say, he's spent three years courting unions, as if this were somehow to his discredit. He could've spent three years courting corporations.
All candidates are free to court unions, just as all candidates are free to focus on poverty and economic inequality, and to talk everywhere they go about the people left behind by conservatism and neoliberalism.
But only one candidate is.