The Edwards Difference, Part I

[Note: I'm one of MyDD's pro-Edwards bloggers. I'm also a novelist. This book will not change your life, but it'll probably entertain you.]

Several people have asked me, both in person and in emails, what I mean when I say that Edwards is running the most progressive campaign among the top-tier. The differences aren't self-evident to casual observers, and they're subtle enough, apparently, to elude even an intense observer like Chris Bowers, who uses the alleged sameness of the candidates to explain his decision not to endorse one of Clinton's opponents.

You can't compare candidates by merely reviewing their positions at this relatively late stage in the race. By the fall of 2003, all the leading candidates were sounding pretty much the same notes on Iraq, thanks to Howard Dean. To the extent that the top-tier campaigns are similar this time around, it's partly because Obama and Clinton had no political choice but to at least hedge toward Edwards.

While it's true, for example, that Clinton ended up with a health care plan similar to JRE's, it's also true that about a year ago, her ideas for health care reform were "tempered and incremental," according to the New York Times. And at the beginning of the race, in February, she said she wanted to pass health care reform by the end of her second term--a position that Edwards has helped to make unviable.

It's impossible to say what the race would look like without Edwards; safe to say, though, that it would be much less pleasing to progressives. Not for nothing did Obama make poverty a focus and begin to speak like a populist for the first time in his career. Clinton couldn't support the South Korean Free Trade Deal after Edwards refused to. You the get the picture. JRE has pushed the entire race to the left--a development discussed and/or celebrated by Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, Dean Baker, Robert Bosorage, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Jonathan Tasini, Jonathan Singer, Matt Ygelsias, The Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Rolling Stone, and I'm sure many others. It's one of the big stories of the race.

(On a related note, Clinton and Obama has each gotten attention recently for taking a position Edwards had already taken with little fanfare, Clinton for supporting the Webb Amendment, which would make it a crime for the president to attack Iran without Congressional authorization, Obama for pledging to lead an effort to reduce the world's nuclear arsenal. While the unequal reaction is to be expected given the media fixation on Obama and Clinton, the Edwards campaign seems not always to know when it's holding a winning hand. Whether it's his support for Murtha's antiwar bill last year, his unconditional opposition to torture (which stood in contrast to Clinton's recently recounced support for torture), his desire to close down Gitmo, his support for the Webb Amendment, or his anti-nuclear weapon abolitionism, Edwards has taken an excellent position but failed to sufficiently highlight it. He needs to do a better job of owning issues.)

Even with the leftward thrust (both genuine and illusory) of Obama and Clinton, important differences remain. The one I'll discuss here is bigger than any single position or set of positions: it's a matter of fundamental ideology. Edwards rejects--transcends--the budget hawkishness that has defined the Democratic Party since for the last fiteen years. Along with the "free" trade regime, which Edwards has also rejected, budget hawkishness defines New Liberalism. Call it Clintonomics, or Rubinomics, or DLCism. I call it wrong and stupid. Bipartisan budget austerity was Clinton's gift to Newt Gingrich. It denies people important programs and the Democrats the benefits of delivering them. It also precludes the kind of economic growth that would reduce deficits in the long term. It's a trap for the Democratic Party, a trap from which Edwards escapes.

Edwards stresses that we can't have it all, that we need to make a choice. His choice is clear: time and again throughout this campaign he has said that public investment and social programs are more important to the country than a balanced budget. After such one instance last winter, Ezra Klein aptly discussed its significance:

That's a genuinely important admission, and one that very, very few Democrats are willing to make. It's the opposite of Clintonomics, which took deficit reduction as the transcendent priority and, as Robert Reich long regretted, forsook most investment spending. It's different than most campaigners, who both promise deficit elimination and heightened spending, and so offer no real clue of how they'll conduct themselves in office. Indeed, it's a relatively rare progressive moment in national politics: A forthright argument for the importance of, and an increase in, public spending, one not shackled by a desire to drive the deficit into nothingness just so the politician can say it's been done.

Edwards isn't fiscally irresponsible; on the contrary, he would offset the costs of his programs by rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy and raising capital gains taxes for people making at least $250,000 a year. He would also consider taxing the windfall profits of oil companies and further raising marginal rates on the rich, making them higher than they were when Bush came into office. But Edwards is willing to admit that the revenue raised by these moved would not be enough to pay for universal health care, middle class tax relief, poverty reduction, action on climate change, and deficit reduction. In this sense, Edwards is running an unusually honest campaign, the sort that the Russertian smart set always claims to want.

Clinton still subscribes to the economic philosophy named after her husband: she talks longingly of the nineties and frequently says things like "Let's get back to balanced budgets," a nice idea that ignores the hard choices. Obama, by contrast, has shown signs that he's willing to break with new liberalism. I had hope for him last winter when he said, "I don't think that we should be obsessed with having a balanced budget given all of the needs that we have right now. But like Clinton, he supports pay-go and has more than a passing association with the Church of Rubin.  And unlike Edwards, Obama hasn't made clear his preference for investment over a balanced budget.

At the same time, Obama and Clinton seem to advocate social spending large enough to make budget hawkishness impossible. (I say "seem" because often the depth and cost of their proposals aren't clear.) In other words, they want to have it both ways. They champion social programs, which impress the Democratic base, as well as balanced budgets, which impress the guardians of conventional opinion.

Some Democrats are unbothered by a candidate who claims to be a budget hawk as long as she or he also supports the kind of programs that the country needs. But there are two major problems with this approach. One, it's dishonest, the "progressive" counterpart to voodoo economics. Two, it won't work: when President Hillary Clinton proposes programs, the GOP would use her own paeans to balanced budgets against her. At that point she would have to make the choice she's refusing to make now, and I see no reason to believe she would make the right one. President Edwards, by contrast, having run a forthright campaign, would have a mandate for his ambitious proposals.

This is not the kind of difference that gets headlines. It's not sexy. It may seem esoteric. But it's defining. It speaks to priorities, philosophy, values. Do you want the country to balance its checkbook or fix its infrastructure and fight climate change? It's the difference between liberalism and new liberalism, between Robert Rubin and Robert Reich, bewteen progressives and the Progressive Policy Institute.

John Edwards has made his choice. And so have I.

NEXT WEEK: More differences!

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