A great President who will never be: John Edwards
One of the most visible indicators of George Bush’s disastrous presidency has been a dramatic rise in global anti-US sentiment. In western Europe, (the east remains more amenable largely owing to memories of the Soviet yoke), French anti-Americanism was once seen as sui generis but over time this view has become less and less tenable. Eight years ago, 83 per cent of British citizens had a favourable view of the US, by last year this had fallen to 51 per cent. Though much of this can be put down to the calamitous invasion of Iraq, it also reflects a view of America as a corporate playground; a land dedicated to vulgar self-gratification while 47 million Americans lack health insurance and Democrat and Republican alike genuflect to big business. Its dismaying therefore, that the one presidential candidate who has said as much has been crowded out by the razzmatazz of Barack Obama and the stoicism (now with added tears) of Hillary Clinton.
“The system in Washington is rigged and our government is broken.” Not the words of a Noam Chomsky op-ed, but those of John Edwards, running mate in 2004 to the lacklustre John Kerry and a challenger for the Democratic nomination. Edwards wasn’t simply playing to the leftist gallery on this occasion. Radicalised by the 2004 defeat, the dysfunctions and social fractures that flow from overweening corporate power have been the defining theme of his campaign. As one Edwards ad put it, “We can say as long as we get Democrats in, everything’s gonna be ok. It’s a lie- do you really believe if we replace a crowd of corporate Republicans with a crowd of corporate Democrats that anything meaningful’s gonna change?”
Nor has Edwards ducked funding issues, promising to break a Democratic taboo-maintained since Walter Mondale’s 1984 run-on raising taxes. His emphasis on tackling inequality has helped bind together a cross-class coalition of progressive liberals, farmers and blue-collar unionised workers. And given that the Democrats have run rather too many Massachusetts liberals in the past, Edwards’ Southern roots are all to the good. After coming home a distant third in New Hampshire, the former North Carolina Senator won’t be elected President but the reasons why do much to affirm his essential message.
With a past as both a robust anti-poverty campaigner and as a well remunerated personal injury lawyer, he has necessarily fallen foul of the right-wing cry of ‘hypocrite!’, with opponents homing in on his $6 million home and his $400 haircut. I think we can all agree that, yes, $400 is rather too much to spend on a rug-rethink, but Edwards wouldn’t begrudge others the same indulgence, nor the appropriate taxation that follows. Where’s the hypocrisy? In any case, under this perverse logic reactionaries like the vile Ann Coulter, who among other things has labelled Edwards a ‘faggot’ and claimed he ‘enjoyed’ the road death of his teenage son, are hypocrites should they ever donate to charity.
Instead, the reality of Edwards’ defeat is that despite getting through more shoe leather than any other candidate, by taking aim at the stranglehold of big money on both parties, he has been left trailing Obama and Clinton in the financial stakes. Despite being just as electable as either, with voters ranking him further ahead of the Republican field when show clips of all candidates, this disparity in resources has proved decisive.
Nor is this just a technical issue; greater freedom from corporate interests has allowed Edwards the space to develop the most progressive policies of any candidate. Moreover, the corollary has held; Obama’s and Clinton’s policies have been visibly tainted by their corporate links.
The failure of Edwards’ campaign to receive the attention it deserves has robbed many of an illuminating vantage point on US politics. As Michael Moore’s Sicko devastatingly documented, the vested interests of the health insurance firms and drug companies, twinned with campaign contributions to this end, have blocked the development of an adequate health system. Clinton has largely matched Edwards’ health care plan, but the suspicion remains that as the second-largest Senate recipient of health-industry contributions, she will be forced to capitulate in practice.
By contrast, Edwards has recognised that euphemism about, or compromise with, corporate forces is neither possible nor desirable. As he wryly notes, “The lesson Senator Clinton seems to have learned from her experience with health care is, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ I learned a very different lesson from decades of fighting powerful interests—you can never join ‘em, you just have to beat ‘em.” Moreover, Edwards’ plan contains an inbuilt reciprocity; if a universal healthcare plan has not been passed by mid 2009, care for the President, Congress and political appointees will be cut off.
Most of all, he has grasped that clearing out the Aegean stables of corporate excess is a necessary preliminary to policy progress on issues from climate change to foreign policy. In 2005 State Department papers thanked ExxonMobil for the company’s “active involvement” in determining climate change policy and briefing papers encouraged acceptable alternatives to Kyoto to be formed in tandem with the company and others. Naomi Klein’s mordant The Shock Doctrine has most recently documented the extent to which corporate force drove the neoliberal order imposed on Iraq under former US viceroy Paul Bremer.
Edwards isn’t without fault; I can’t forgive his rather saccharine piety, “I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering”, a defect shared by his Democratic rivals. This is after all a religion that inaugurated the concept of eternal punishment long before Guantanamo Bay, or anything like it, came on the scene. His campaign hasn’t devoted enough attention to the consistent curtailment of civil liberties by the Bush administration, and his vote in favour of the Patriot Act is a stain on his record. But he still offered the Democrats their most progressive opportunity for decades.
The failure of John Edwards says much about the preference of American liberals for the fuzzy bed of identity-politics-a refuge for the sinister and mediocre-rather than principled civic liberalism. Yet Edwards’ failure also holds uncomfortable truths for the European left. The lack of interest in his campaign suggests at least some have become so disillusioned with US politics that they are unable to recognise a candidate who stands against the very roots of this disillusion. This mixture of complacency and fatalism must change-and soon.
Published in the Warwick Boar, 15/01/08