We're up against more than the military-industrial complex that exercises undue influence over our political decision-making: Now we've got a “medical-industrial complex” (in Jon Kingsdale's phrase), one-sixth of our economy partly grafted onto our government; the petro-industrial complex, which milks the taxpayer for subsidies even as it enjoys high prices and record profits; and so on. This should be troubling for everyone: Whether you're a social-justice liberal or a low-tax conservative, the current looting of our public till ought to shock and offend you. It's. Your. Mun-ny.
This is the essential conflict for the Democratic Party, whose history and destiny is to be (relatively) populist, progressive, and utilitarian — in other words, the party of “the little guy.” Money-interest politics divides the Democratic Party and strengthens the GOP: On any given issue (bankruptcy, CO2 emissions, health care), one can depend on a few critical Democratic votes defecting from a progressive, utilitarian position to defend a parochial, moneyed interest. Carl Levin and John Dingell vote with the automakers against critical environmental legislation; Joe Biden and Joe Lieberman vote for a misanthropic bankruptcy law; Barack Obama abortively supports CO2-belching coal-to-liquid technologies (ahem), and so on, forever and ever Amen.
And so, even though the public widely agrees with many progressive positions (yes, depending on how they're framed and phrased), in the face of a bought-and-paid-for Republican opposition and internal dissension, the Democrats seem powerless, impotent. At least since the health care debacle of 1993-94, the GOP has been perfectly happy
to obstruct and deny progress the public demands in order to deny Democrats credit for success. They're happy enough to be thought “just plain evil,” as long as the Dems are thought to be worthless.
So this incisive critique of our system is much of why I've found Edwards to be compelling. But in addition, at this year's Take Back America conference, I was moved by his idealism, by his concern for the poor and ignored, and by his vision for America's positive place in the world, its potential for leadership by example. (At the same conference, I was wowed by Obama's oratorical skill, and generally underwhelmed by Hillary's case for herself.) I think he's genuine. His wife Elizabeth is, if anything, even more direct, clear and effective than he is. If she's saying what John feels but somehow can't or oughtn't say himself, that's a good sign. I believe them when they say that their lives together are defined by their mission of service. Together, they sound like people who realize that life is short, and there's no time to sugar-coat, to dance around the subject, to equivocate. That's a pretty typical and I think noble response to tragedy. (Do see this fascinating personal look at the Edwards family in the New York Times.)
Policy: The Out-Front Leader on the Big Ones
Edwards has led the Democratic field on policy in the areas that to me are morally non-negotiable: Universal health care, and climate change. On health care, Edwards took the Massachusetts model of shared responsibility (yes, and mandates) and did it a few steps better, calling for subsidies higher up the income ladder, and for a public alternative to private health insurance.
On climate change, he was the first to roll out a plan that calls for 80% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2050, considered to be the scientific baseline for dealing with the problem. Grist Magazine calls Edwards the “prime mover” behind the Democratic candidates' eventual consensus on this issue as well. These rock-solid requirements, strong enforcement, and visionary leadership are simply non-negotiable for my support of a candidate. The means are negotiable, but the ends are not. Fortunately, Obama and Hillary Clinton have followed suit with their own credible plans; but would they have done so without Edwards? (And what was Obama thinking, flirting with coal-to-liquid? Is that leadership?)
Caveats: No Quixote for me; More hope, please
Edwards is not perfect by any stretch. I have mentioned before his annoying tendency to portray himself as the lone hero, the knight in shining armor. Actually, if he's elected, he will need a vast public mandate, a truly historic attitudinal shift to deliver on his agenda. Congress will need to feel the heat; hacky corporate pols will have to fear for their seats, and a President can't do that all by his lonesome. What's the mechanism by which he shames Congress into shunning corporate influence and acting on behalf of the broad public again? It's all a little hard to believe — but having the power of the President is certainly a good start.
Furthermore, I think Obama's onto something in his role as “hopemonger”. History plainly shows that the electorate favors optimistic, high-flown rhetoric — and why shouldn't we? Who wants to wallow? Edwards could do a better job pivoting from his searing indictment of our political culture to a brighter, more hopeful vision of the future. Where's the shining City on the Hill? Edwards needs to start working that into his speeches. As Bill Clinton wisely said, “There's nothing wrong with America that can't be cured by what's right with America.” We need to believe that. Hope isn't just about feeling good; it's a moral necessity.
But while I admire Obama's hopeful rhetoric, there just isn't quite enough bite, enough contrast, to really create a mandate for a post-corporate, post-DeLay era politics. I don't see him throwing the money-changers out of the temple. And Hillary apparently has no interest in even trying, since Bill Clinton managed to thrive politically in the 1990s even in the height of the soft-money era. I have little doubt that she can work the system, but the rest of us are entitled to ask, What's in it for us?
I think that any of Edwards, Obama, or Hillary Clinton could be elected. But I have my doubts about whether any of the Big Three can actually execute their strategies as President. At the very least, I'd like the next Democratic President to understand what he/she is up against. Hands-down, that's Edwards. He gets it. And in this campaign, he's led, again and again. Is that going to count for something, or not?