John Edwards’ Populism Called a Risky Bet

The Los Angeles Times reviews how Edwards’ populist campaign has kept him alive for the Democratic nomination, but is a risky platform for the general election:

In adopting poverty and low-wage work as his themes, Edwards has struck a far more combative, populist tone than in his 2004 presidential campaign. And that has helped him elbow into the top tier of a field dominated by better-financed candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — and has even boosted him to a lead in polls in the key early-voting state of Iowa.

But Edwards’ 2008 strategy carries risks, in part because it speaks most directly to a slice of the electorate that has notably little political clout. Perhaps the last major presidential candidate to make fighting poverty a central theme was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) in 1968, before his assassination that June. Some analysts warn that an agenda that might suggest “class warfare” risks alienating middle-class swing voters and moderate Democrats who do not want to revive criticisms that theirs is the party of the poor.

“It is very brave to take on an issue that he himself says has no constituency that has power, but it’s a tough road to be trodding to the White House,” said Matt Bennett, a vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic research organization.

Among the risks is that his populist platform is bringing out charges of hypocrisy:

But Edwards’ focus on the disenfranchised has also left him open to allegations of hypocrisy. Wealthy from his career as a lawyer, Edwards has been pummeled by reports that he spent $400 for haircuts, built himself a 28,000-square-foot mansion on a 100-acre estate, and did consulting work for a hedge fund that trafficked in offshore investing of the sort he had criticized.

“It has hurt him, and I say that as someone who admires and respects John Edwards a tremendous amount,” said Fischer.

I believe Edwards could survive charges of hypocrisy if it was limited to this issue, but his credibility is further damaged by similar changes in position on multiple issues. It was bad enough defending a candidate such as Kerry from charges of being a flip-flopper when the charges were untrue. It will be impossible to defend a candidate such as Edwards who is guilty as charged.

Some Democrats on the left on economic matters see Edwards as a welcome change from the Clinton years, but fail to recognize why Democrats won in 2006, and lost so many elections previously. With the breakdown of the old New Deal coalition, the Democrats won in 2006 with a new coalition which might be better characterized by their opposition to many of the Republican policies than support for a single platform.

There are many core liberal issues which the Democrats can defend as a majority party, including protection of civil liberties, a foreign policy which is both strong and sensible, providing better access to affordable health care, restoration of our traditional principles of separation of church and state which is necessary for true freedom of religion, eliminating the collusion between big business and Republican government which violates the fundamental principles of the free market, and restoration of the checks and balances on government which were damaged under the Republicans. However, if the Democrats see their victory as a mandate to move to the far left on economic issues, they will quickly lose the support of the independents and “Starbucks Republicans” who voted for them in 2006, and once again become a minority party.

The Los Angeles Times also notes the weakness of Edwards’ agenda in a general election. Edwards lacks credibility on the issues he now campaigns on, limiting his support. He also alienates a majority in a country where, despite too many being left behind, most are experiencing affluence and consider themselves middle class:

It is not clear whether Edwards’ message is reaching far beyond the political elite and activist core. In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, Edwards was regarded as the most conservative candidate in the Democratic field. And though Edwards is connecting with labor activists, he does not appear to be catching on among minorities who might seem a natural constituency. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that most blacks supported Sens. Clinton or Obama. It found negligible support among blacks for Edwards.

The broader political challenge in championing a new war on poverty is that middle- and upper-class voters may not see it as relevant to their lives. But Edwards also has initiatives aimed at the economic insecurity higher on the income ladder, such as his plan for universal health insurance. That plan would require people to buy health insurance, demand that employers pay part of the cost, and expand government programs for the poor.

Health care is the one issue where Republicans are failing at their attempts to equate this with the far left, and their screams of “socialized medicine” are no longer credible. The inaction by Republicans, accompanied by proposals which only worsen the problem, has increased the problem to the point where middle class voters and businessmen now see that government action is necessary. However, Edwards plan also risks alienating many potential supporters when more moderate plans could alleviate the problem without alienating those who are satisfied with their health care coverage.

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