Friday, November 11


John Edwards is sounding more and more like a viable Democratic presidential candidate for president in 2008. On his most vulnerable issue (for me and many progressives), he appears to have learned his lesson -- the Iraq War was a mistake, he admits, and Hillary is wrong-headed in advocating increased troop levels to "finish the job." On his signature issue, the "two Americas," events such as Katrina may have conspired to help him in that they raised the consciousness, and conscience, of the American people.

Lesson One: Stop thinking small. "I think in our effort to be elected, we've become minimalists, tinkering around the edges--Our tax cut is better than yours, or, We'll give you smaller class sizes," he says. "That's not what the country wants. We've got to give the American people something big and important to be unified by. Republicans use big things to divide America. I think we can use big things to unite America."

Chief among those "big things," clearly, is an all-out effort to conquer poverty.
Which brings us to Lesson Two: Democrats can't afford to keep ceding the "values vote." Here again, Edwards sees his antipoverty crusade as a step in the right direction. "In a country of our wealth, to have 37 million people living in poverty? It's a huge moral issue," he says. "There's a hunger in this country for a sense of national community, that we're not in this thing by ourselves. There's been a long period of selfish thinking. I think there's a great opportunity for us to be about a big, moral cause that's bigger than people's own self-interest."
Steve Jarding, the rural strategist who set fundraising records running Edwards's PAC in 2002 before leaving the campaign in frustration, thinks his moral spin on the "two Americas" message has real potential in Middle America. "Let's face it: There are millions of families sitting down at the table tonight, parents working two or three jobs and struggling to survive. Are they sitting there saying, Thank God two gay people aren't getting married? or, I'm so glad the girl down the street can't get an abortion? That's not what's tearing their families apart. If Edwards will stand up and tell them that, he could change the turf."

Lesson Three is also about changing the turf: Democrats, who've now lost every state in the nation's largest region in two straight elections, have to take their message south.
Edwards says his New America Initiative will address the middle-class squeeze as well as poverty. But he thinks the key to Southern votes involves something that transcends policy positions. "These are the kinds of people that respond to strength and leadership," he says. "They want leaders who have the backbone to stand up for something. We're not Republicans. When we try to be some lighter version of what we are, which is what happens over and over, it's devastating to Democrats. Why would they choose us?"

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