What Edwards is About

You should not be president if you do not acknowledge the divisions that threaten our economy, our society and our soul.
                                                                                 --John Edwards

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.

Tags: core, economic injustice, John Edwards, Message, Morality, Poverty, theme, Values (all tags)

Comments

16 Comments

Re: What Edwards is About

Fantastic post David.  This is exactly why I support Edwards and thanks for reminding me why spend so much time, money and emotional effort to support John Edwards.  Because he cares about the things I care about.

by MassEyesandEars 2007-10-23 10:13AM | 0 recs
Re: What Edwards is About

Thanks. I was in the mood for a get-back-to-basics post.

by david mizner 2007-10-23 10:15AM | 0 recs
I agree with you

He has the right priorities and the right ideas about how to address them.

And no, Taylor Marsh, "the narrative" is not the most important quality in a candidate. If anything, Edwards had too much narrative during his last presidential campaign. He is a better candidate now.

by desmoinesdem 2007-10-23 10:53AM | 0 recs
Re: What Edwards is About

The Democratic Party must be the party of working women and men, or it is nothing.  John Edwards is leading OUR movement to reclaim OUR party.

Excellent analysis, David.    

by TomP 2007-10-23 10:17AM | 0 recs
Re: What Edwards is About

By the way, that Register poll found that Edwards was tied with Clinton among the poor.

by david mizner 2007-10-23 10:19AM | 0 recs
Re: What Edwards is About

This is a rock solid diary. Thank you.

by Hillary Lieberman 2007-10-23 10:19AM | 0 recs
From a lifetime spent

 fighting the rich and powerful for those who have been injured.

 It is always difficult to explain to those who have not been injured by the wrong of another - but if that calamity ever visits itself upon you - you will face a new and different world - one not many know exists - the world where fantastically rich and powerful forces spring into action to grind you down - to deny truth, delay responsibility and cheat you of what was once yours.

Edwards spent a life fighting - and fighting long and hard - for those of  whom other sought to take advantage - at the very time they were at their most vulnerable.  No other candidate has ever brought these life experiences.

Mostly they move in the world of the rich and pampered - the privileged and flattered.  If we really care about making America great again - we will quit making heroes of our slothful and indolent - and instead look to those who have done well by doing right and who seek to make America great by understanding the greatness of America comes from all of us - not just the self-anointed.

by Boxer 2007-10-23 10:28AM | 0 recs
Re: What Edwards is About

When Taylor Marsh suggests that the narrative is important, I think she is right, but who is to write the narrative.

Bloggers wrote the narrative for Dean.  And though he didn't win the primary he did become chair of the DNC.  

Dean was for the people but unless others communicate it, the story is not heard.

Garance Franke-Ruta wrote a great narrative about Edwards and his campaign.  She gave us a glimpse of poverty that we don't usually see.  

Edwards poverty tour gave some reporters an opportunity to see reality.  Not everyone pick it up or understands this issue the way Garance Franke-Ruta did.  Edwards has done a lot to develop the narrative.  

The trouble is that Edwards' is a wider narrative than what Clinton and Obama are putting forward.  
The rest of us have to keep expanding that narrative.  Or maybe we have to find a short form for him.

Edwards is clear what he is about: he want to give every American the opportunities given him.  
He thus identifies those who don't have those opportunities because of institutional malfunctions.  
Edwards has offered a variety of plans and proposals to fix those problems and give people a fair shake.

Thank you david for helping develop the narrative of Edwards.

by pioneer111 2007-10-23 10:38AM | 0 recs
I was in Keokuk one month ago

I had gone to Nauvoo to buy grape juice for wine.  We were heading back to St Louis with the grape juice and went to Keokuk for dinner.  

That part of Iowa is VERY flat.  The downtown of Keokuk is very nice, but decaying and old.  Many river towns (Burlington, Quincy, etc) share similar looks - the downtown is hollowed out by Hurricane WalMart.  

I have NO idea what people do in these towns these days for work.  But that's a huge question for the next president.  Where is America going to work?

by dataguy 2007-10-23 10:50AM | 0 recs
off-topic: Des Moines sophisticates?

calling Keokuk the armpit of Iowa?

What the hell is she talking about?

Weird.

I have a friend whose mom lives in Keokuk. Struggling is the word for the community. Wal-Mart came in and put the other local groceries out of business. Now my friend's mom can either shop at Wal-Mart or drive about an hour north or south.

by desmoinesdem 2007-10-23 10:51AM | 0 recs
Re: off-topic: Des Moines sophisticates?

Well, yeah. Okay. I said she did reporting, but that doesn't mean she's not a DC snob. I doubt she found "sophsiticates" who called it the armpit cause people don't really talk that way.

by david mizner 2007-10-23 10:55AM | 0 recs
David, you are dead-on here

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.

That sounds to me like exactly what she is doing.

Last year I heard a presentation about focus group research on sustainable agriculture and food systems.

Many advocates try to play on sympathy for family farmers. But one of the interesting findings of the research was that although Americans already have positive feelings about family farms, they also believe that those farms are obsolete. Mainstream media coverage of food and industrial agriculture leads people to believe that old-fashioned farming is doomed just like horse-drawn carriages were after the automobile came in.

So it does no good to evoke sympathy for something people assume is obsolete.

If people come to believe that John Edwards stands for something that is irrevocably lost, they will not take him as seriously as a candidate.

I think Garance is wrong to use the phrase "vanishing way of life." For instance, some small towns are economically viable, and there are concrete policies we could enact to help other towns replicate their success. Some programs aimed at reducing poverty have been successful, and we could do more to replicate their success in other areas.

by desmoinesdem 2007-10-23 10:58AM | 0 recs
Re: What Edwards is About

Nice catch, David, about false mourning for the loss of Edwards/small town way of life. No matter what they write, they are wrong.

My Edwards theme: Edwards is frontrunner as often as Clinton in many kinds of races:  I say: "Edwards is frontrunner for union endorsements, with 3.1 million union members. No other candidate has this much union support."

"Edwards is frontrunner in the all-important electability poll, where he beats Clinton in head to head match ups with Republicans."

Take Action: Send frontrunner items to your local newspapers and to national political writers, especially AP when they refer to Frontrunner Clinton:

With the endorsement of the NCAE, the North Carolina Association of Educators, John Edwards has passed the 3.1 million members mark in union support. Last week Edwards won the endorsement of 11 SEIU state councils, representing over 1 million workers in Iowa, California, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, West Virginia, Ohio and Oregon.

The Iowa Postal Workers Union, representing 3,000 members, also endorsed Edwards last week.

In September, Edwards earned the endorsement of the Transport Workers Union of America (200,000 active and retired members), the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (520,000 active members), the United Steelworkers (1.2 million active members and retirees), and the United Mine Workers of America (105,000 active members and retirees).

by mrobinsong 2007-10-23 11:23AM | 0 recs
Beautiful Post

This is the theme that so many of us have been yearning.  I'm surprised at the lack of popular comparisons between Edwards and Bobby Kennedy(the 1968 Bobby).

Let's keep resisting the corporations attempt to crown the next president.  

The post about tauting the front-running aspects of the campaign is a great point also!

With the brains, dedication and passion of so many supporters, this campaign is going somewhere.

by kentuckydave 2007-10-23 11:35AM | 0 recs
Re: What Edwards is About

This is a great post. But I'd like to add that what Edwards is about is not only standing up for small towns, for the working people in those towns, for those who would like to work but have few opporutnities, and for those who can't work.

He's also offering a powerful vision for the middle class, for those who aspire that their children will have better opportunities in education, will have access to higher ed, and will live in a world that has not gone over the precipice into environmental disaster.

Even more so, to me, he offers a vision of a country in which citizens matter. It seems to me that there is a "dying way of life" that he's defending, which is representative democracy.

There's no way that any of the people, or issues, mentioned in this article have any chance if the party and then the country isn't taken back from the big-money donors and cynical political establishment insiders, and if voters, Dem priamry voters and then citizens across the country, aren't given some real hope for a change rather than fear of it getting worse.

To me, thats what Edwards is about.

by desmoulins 2007-10-23 11:39AM | 0 recs
Re: What Edwards is About

http://blog.johnedwards.com/story/2007/1 0/22/194824/27#11
Read discussion on John's blog on WPA. I added this after reading a site: "American Life Histories 1936-1940."
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wpaintro/wpa home.html

Danny Glover told a crowd that the Edwards campaign was about stories; how true. John tells the story of good people with bad leaders who maintain a broken system of government, but doesn't blame (as Clinton does) or dwell on just how bad. Instead he talks about what we can all do together to return to what was once righteous and true about America, how together we will make a better future for all of us. He tells the American story from a dozen directions and with a voice that is as homespun and elegant as these voices in this WPA audio record.

By not blaming so much, he makes room in this story for Republicans to vote with us, to see themselves as Americans first, to see the problem is with failed leadership in Washington D.C.  This is the best, smartest campaign I've ever witnessed and I'm confident we are going to win Iowa - big.

by mrobinsong 2007-10-23 06:26PM | 0 recs

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