As we sat in a hotel hospitality suite in New Hampshire's north country last month, accompanied by a Muzak version of Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now," Edwards said he might consider pressuring the Fed to lower interest rates in order to tighten labor markets, but he wasn't sure. Similarly, he said he was wary of raising the tax rate on capital gains too high, fearing that it would cause capital to flee the country. He sounded equally unenthused about returning to the days of steeper levies on the superrich (beyond the tax-cut rollback he has proposed on those making more than $200,000), even though his official position is that he would consider them. "Would I be willing to consider higher rates on the highest-earning Americans -- you know, people who make millions of dollars?" he asked. "It's something I'd be open to. It's not something I'd propose."
In fact, the more you talk to Edwards, the more apparent it is that the populist label doesn't quite fit. While he talks incessantly about economic injustice, Edwards isn't proposing anything -- beyond an oil-company windfall tax, which Hillary Clinton has also embraced -- that would strike a serious blow against multinational corporations or the top tier of American earners. Even in his rhetoric, Edwards seems to deliberately avoid stoking resentments or pitting one class against another the way a true populist would, unless you count taking a few easy shots at Wal-Mart.
"Rhetorically, if you're calling Edwards an economic populist, it's true he cares a lot about the poor," says Robert Reich, who isn't yet supporting a candidate. "He evinces a lot of concern for the middle class and middle-class anxieties. But he's not in any way attacking the rich or corporations." Reich says this with a note of disappointment. "He's not explaining one fundamental fact of modern economic life, which is that the very rich have all the money."
When I asked Edwards if he blamed large corporations or the wealthiest Americans for inequality, he appeared briefly confused by the question. "No -- no," Edwards repeated, shaking his head. "I just don't think blaming helps, to be honest with you. What's the point?"