Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Mr. Edwards Takes His Leave

Today Americans head to the polls to decide who the nominees for both the Republican and Democratic parties should be. The betting is that John McCain, like Lazarus, will enjoy a political resurrection. On the Democratic side, the outcome is not so clear. The only thing Democrats know for sure is that John Edwards has left the building.

In many ways, Edwards was the most appealing of the three candidates. Here I must acknowledge that Edwards went to law school at the University of North Carolina, from which I graduated almost thirty five years ago; and he lives outside Chapel Hill. I loved going to school there; and, to me, the town always seemed an oasis of wisdom and tolerance in a state which at times -- particularly when Jesse Helms served as its senior senator -- lacked of both.

There are those who were unimpressed with Edwards' angry populism. And some -- noting that Edwards could afford four hundred dollar haircuts and that he lived in a palatial home -- accused him of hypocrisy. But, so far as I know, discovering and using one's talents for good, even if those talents lead to the accumulation of some wealth, is not a sign of moral turpitude. Another way of thinking about Edwards is that he simply didn't forget where he came from. And where he came from is a small South Carolina mill town, the working class of which used to be referred to -- pejoratively -- as "lint heads."

These are the folks, Robert Reich wrote, whose incomes have stagnated for thirty years. Until recently, they have adopted three strategies to cope with this situation. First, working women entered the work force. In 1970, 38% of American women worked outside the home. Today that number is 70%. When that was not enough to keep them from slipping into poverty, working class Americans simply worked more hours. "The typical American," wrote Reich, "now works two weeks more each year than 30 years ago." And, in a final desperate attempt to avoid being caught in an economic undertow, they went into debt -- lots of it. Now, as the sub-prime mortgage crisis threatens to take the entire financial system down, they have run out of options. Edwards has reason to be angry.

But anger is not Edwards chief legacy to this year's campaign. Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times last week that Edwards has left those who have survived -- Mr. Obama and Mrs Clinton -- a storehouse of good, workable ideas. "He made a habit of introducing bold policy proposals," wrote Krugman, "and they were met with such enthusiasm among Democrats that his rivals were more or less forced to follow suit."

Sometimes, however, the man with the ideas has to watch as others implement them. "Unfortunately for Mr. Edwards," wrote Krugman, "the willingness of his rivals to emulate his policy proposals made it hard for him to differentiate himself as a candidate; meanwhile those rivals had far larger financial resources and received vastly more media attention." Still, Edwards extracted from both Obama and Clinton a pledge to make poverty -- which he calls "the cause of my life" -- a centerpiece of Democratic policy. And good trial lawyer that he is, one can be sure he will hold both Obama and Clinton to that pledge.

I wrote a month ago that my money was on Obama. It still is. But regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, neither he nor she will has got there without the policies and the passion of John Edwards. He and his wife, Elizabeth, now move on to other more important battles. God speed.

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