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Who's Hitting the Right Notes?

John Edwards and Sens. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.)
John Edwards and Sens. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) (AP)

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

"Why are we here?" John Edwards asked the members of the Democratic National Committee last Friday -- meaning: What animates us? What is the banner we ask Americans to take up? And, by morning's end, the Democrats had heard three different answers from their party's presidential front-runners.

Edwards and Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had distinct perspectives on Iraq, but their other differences were, if anything, more revealing. Edwards depicted, in a rising crescendo of emotion, the human cost of manmade disasters: the hotel housekeeper picketing for health coverage; the 8-year-old going to bed hungry; the mother of a soldier in Iraq answering her door to news of her son's death; the orphaned 5-year-old in the Sudanese desert. One of America's best trial lawyers was pleading for the victims of cruel and idiotic policies, offering policies of his own to save the innocents.

Where Edwards personified problems, Obama abstracted them. In the forthcoming election, he said, "our rivals won't be the other party. Our enemy is cynicism." More particularly, he went on, the enemy was the debasing of the public square.

"It's time to free ourselves from the constraints of politics," he said. Some might want to focus on specifics or plans but, "We've had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we've had is a shortage of hope." Accordingly, though Obama made clear his opposition to the Iraq war, he omitted any mention of his plan to withdraw U.S. forces by March 2008.

Clinton was less all-embracing in her indictments and her remedies -- nothing flowery, all matter-of-fact. Among the Democratic front-runners, she's the reality principle. "In the Senate," she reminded listeners, "we still have to create coalitions to get things accomplished." She also spoke about the erosion of the American social contract, though not with the kind of heartbreaking illustrations Edwards summoned. But Clinton also stated, more clearly than Edwards had, that our economic woes affected the vast middle class. With wages stagnating and health care growing more costly, Clinton said, we've lost the bargain that "if you worked hard and did your part, the country would stand with you. This bargain created the American middle class, our greatest social achievement."

All of which is to say that, because of the absurdly early start of the 2008 presidential campaign, we have already reached that point where the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates' messages are becoming apparent. Beyond question, Edwards is the best positioned to ride the populist wave that is finally and rightly hitting our shores. By his willingness to repeal tax cuts for the rich to pay for universal health care, he is wagering that Americans will favor fairness and functionality over the anti-tax ideology of recent decades.

But Edwards risks sounding like the tribune for a smaller, more marginal group of Americans than he may intend to. Defending unions, he said it was time for Democrats to stand with workers who spent their "whole lives in factories, who worked in the mills." True enough, but Democrats also have to stand with workers who spend their whole lives at their keyboards. The father of Democratic populism, William Jennings Bryan, never made it to the White House, in part because he could never add the backing of industrial workers to his support among farmers. Edwards will do well among industrial workers; it's the post-industrial workers he needs to win over.

For her part, Clinton stressed that engineers as well as mill hands face outsourcing. She articulates the scope of globalization's problems more broadly than Edwards does, even if Edwards is more likely to confront those problems with more aggressively fair-trade proposals. Clinton's grasp of the breadth of our dilemmas is offset by the incrementalism of her solutions -- a disjuncture that may disturb Democrats who feel the time is ripe for bigger things.

And Obama? His broad indictment of contemporary politics has great appeal, I suspect, to young voters in particular. But the cynicism about government that he rightly condemns didn't waft in from nowhere. It's been a tool that the right has used to undermine the bargain Clinton spelled out, creating the desperate Americans Edwards talked about, to the end of distributing more wealth to the rich. The hope Obama personifies can be a powerful force -- but not when he counterposes it to specifics or to political struggle.

Early midcourse recalibrations, anyone?

meyersonh@washpost.com


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