The Repackaging of John Edwards

“I’m proposing we set a national goal of eliminating poverty in the next 30 years. Like JFK challenging America to land a man on the moon, a national goal of eradicating poverty will sharpen our focus, marshal our resources and at the end of the day, bring out our best.”

Meet John Edwards, populist. The former 2004 vice presidential candidate has repackaged himself, with a new message for his run to be the Democratic presidential nominee for 2008.

Choosing as a site the New Orleans backyard of a woman whose home was devastated by Hurricane Katrina the year before, Edwards announced his candidacy in December. He’s actively courting organized labor, naming former Michigan Rep. David Bonior, with his ties to the union movement, as campaign manager.

Edwards is speaking at union halls and was an outspoken supporter of increasing the minimum wage and the union card-check protection act. He also says he has a plan for universal health care.

This is a different part from the one Edwards played when he ran with John Kerry in 2004. While he liked to lay it on thick about his humble roots back then–to counter Kerry’s considerably deeper, older moneyed background–Edwards was still the product of his relationships in the conservative wing of the Democratic Party.

At the time, he was giving speeches crafted by conservative Democratic Leadership Council leader Bruce Reed–and getting called Clinton Lite for pushing “personal responsibility” and “hard work.”

* * *

Edwards is accustomed to retooling his image as needed.

His first political run was in 1998–against a Republican incumbent in his home state of North Carolina. Edwards used some of the millions he’d made as a successful personal injury lawyer–in 1993, he was inducted into the Inner Circle of Advocates, a society of 100 top lawyers, each of whom won at least one case worth $1 million–to hire a crack campaign staff.

The 26-person team was a Who’s Who of Democratic Party operators, such as former Clinton advisor and media consultant Bob Shrum, media strategist Gary Pierce and pollster Harris Hickman. Edwards narrowly beat out Duncan “Lauch” Faircloth–who was part of the Jesse Helms political machine, and would later have a hand in trying to impeach Bill Clinton–despite Republican attempts to smear him as an “ambulance chaser.”

In the Senate, Edwards cast some less-than-progressive votes. In 1999, his first year in office, he voted for an amendment to allow mountaintop-removal mining practices. He also voted to exempt pickup trucks from fuel-efficiency standards and against stricter prohibitions on the use of pesticides in parks. He supported the storage of nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

During his term, which ended in 2004, he cosponsored more than 200 bills, including Joe Lieberman’s 2002 resolution to authorize the use of armed force against Iraq and several expressing solidarity with Israel’s so-called “fight against terrorism.” Edwards is a supporter of the death penalty and opposes gay marriage. He voted for the USA PATRIOT Act.

In recent years, Edwards has admitted that his vote to give Bush the authority to declare war on Iraq was a mistake. While he’s at least saying he’s sorry–unlike opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton–it doesn’t erase the enthusiasm he had for the war at the time.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he must have had an inkling of what was clear already to antiwar activists–that the White House case for war was based on distortion and fabrication. But he still wrote a saber-rattling op-ed article in the September 19, 2002, Washington Post–just before the congressional vote–titled “Congress Must Be Clear.”

After the Democrats’ defeat in the 2004 election, Edwards became director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s law school, a liberal think tank. He is promoting an “Opportunity Rocks” tour at college campuses that encourages students to get involved in anti-poverty programs, and he has made his vow to eliminate poverty a regular line in his speeches.

But this doesn’t mean Edwards has gotten too far away from the money. He also became a consultant for the Fortress Investment Group–which largely manages hedge funds and real-estate investments. Edwards’ role at Fortress would be to provide “support in developing investment opportunities worldwide and strategic advice on global economic issues,” an Edwards spokesperson, Kim Rubey, told BusinessWeek magazine at the time.

Fortress picked Edwards for his work as co-chair of a Council on Foreign Relations task force on U.S.-Russia relations. According to BusinessWeek, during the 2004 presidential campaign, Fortress employees’ political action committee contributed $4,000 to Edwards and $143,650 total to Democratic candidates for Congress and the White House.

The conservative New York Post took Edwards to task in January when it observed the contradiction between Edwards’ talk about “two Americas” and his own $4.3 million North Carolina home. They titled the article about the 100-acre estate near Chapel Hill, N.C., complete with indoor basketball court, “Estate of Denial.”

Of course, the millionaire Edwards isn’t alone among the candidates with a less-than-modest lifestyle–the Clintons have two homes worth more than a million dollars.

* * *

What Edwards’ campaign shows is that some Democrats are seeing the need to talk the populist talk.

At a Democratic Party forum on February 2, “Edwards drew a rousing reception with a sharp attack on Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq and a populist appeal for Democrats to return to their roots as defenders of the union workers, the poor and struggling middle-class families,” reported the Washington Post. “‘In times like these, we don’t need to redefine the Democratic Party,’ he said. ‘We need to reclaim the Democratic Party.'”

But as a long line of Democrats have proven in the past, walking the walk will be a different matter. Edwards may have donned a populist veneer for the beginning of the race for the president, but where will that populism go if he makes it into office?

Bill Clinton could serve as a likely model. With the mantra “It’s the economy stupid,” Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign took up several economic demands to gain support from unions and workers in general–health care reform, an increase in the minimum wage and a ban on employers using replacement workers (scabs) during strikes, a middle-class tax cut.

But when he got into office, “fiscal responsibility” and “shared sacrifice” became the new catchphrases. Not only did he renege on his promises to improve the lives of American workers, but he went further in making them worse. The Clinton administration pushed through the NAFTA free-trade deal, gutted welfare and stopped talking about universal health care.

During the race for the Democratic nomination in 2004, we didn’t even have to wait for a Democrat to get into office to see what the party’s real priorities were. By the time the Kerry-Edwards campaign met its crushing defeat, their mantra was about being “tough on terrorism” and “balancing the federal budget.”

They were concerned about satisfying a different audience, which might be put off by populist rhetoric. As journalist Chris Hedges wrote recently, “If Gore, or Kerry, had the spine to take [Bush] on, to challenge corporate welfare, corporate crime, the hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate bailouts and issues such as labor law reform, if either had actually stood up to these corporate behemoths on behalf of the working and middle class, rather than mutter thought-terminating clichés about American greatness, he could have won with a landslide. But Gore and Kerry did not dare to piss off their corporate paymasters.”

All the rousing rhetoric in the world doesn’t mean that the Democrats will work in our interests–unless they’re forced to.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the Democrats acquired much of their pro-worker reputation, the political rulers of American had concluded they had to provide some aid to starving workers, or risk even greater upheaval. So while Democrat Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for his administration’s anti-poverty programs, the real instigators were workers and the poor themselves–who organized to stop evictions and form unions.

For some, Lyndon Johnson’s name is synonymous with the “war on poverty,” but it wouldn’t have happened if not for the struggles of the civil rights movement.

When politicians like John Edwards start using populist rhetoric, it’s a sign of the bitterness of ordinary people toward the Washington status quo. Campaign promises from the likes of Edwards and Barack Obama to do something about poverty or health care can raise the confidence of working Americans to expect and demand more.

But in the end, it will take struggle to get politicians like Edwards who talk about the “two Americas” to answer to the demands of the America they forget about once in office–the one that works for a living.

ELIZABETH SCHULTE writes for the Socialist Worker.