Making The Poor Visible

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, July 20, 2007

John Edwards may be running third in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but he has already changed the national conversation on a crucial issue. Poverty is no longer a hidden subject in American politics.

Be as skeptical of Edwards as you want to be. Yes, he has had some trouble since he joined the 3-H Club -- the $400 haircut, building a 28,000-square-foot house and taking $500,000 in payments from a hedge fund. Yes, he has gotten political traction among liberals out of saying endlessly that ending poverty is "the cause of my life."

Moreover, Barack Obama was right to say Wednesday that his early community organizing work shows that poverty "is not an issue I just discovered for the purposes of a campaign." For that matter, Hillary Clinton began her professional life laboring to eradicate child poverty.

The difference is that by harping on the issue, Edwards -- whatever his motivations -- has forced Democrats to abandon their fear of being seen as too focused on the needs of the poor and has thus opened political space for his rivals.

Since the late 1980s, Democrats have been obsessed with the middle class for reasons of simple math: no middle-class votes, no electoral victories.

But focusing on the middle class is one thing. Keeping the poor in the political closet is another. Must appealing to the self-interest of the middle class preclude appealing to its conscience?

Democrats have lost enormous ground by allowing a myth to take hold that Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was a failure. "In the 1960s, we waged war on poverty, and poverty won" is one of the most powerful bits of rhetoric in the conservative arsenal.

Edwards took on this falsehood directly in his speech Wednesday in Prestonsburg, Ky., at the end of his tour of impoverished regions. "We accomplished a lot," he said of LBJ's time, "civil rights laws, Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps and Head Start and Title I aid for poor schools. The Great Society and other safety-net programs have cut the number of people living in poverty in half."

Edwards understands that unless the country is given hard evidence that government can succeed, it will never embrace government-led efforts at social reform.

Yet both Edwards and Obama acknowledged the past mistakes of reformers. Edwards spoke of the failure "to recognize the importance of three things: rewarding work, creating opportunity everywhere and protecting and strengthening families."

Obama was even more pointed in his criticism of the liberal past. He spoke of "an inability of some on the left to acknowledge that the problems of absent fathers or persistent crime were indeed problems that needed to be addressed."

Quietly, a new anti-poverty consensus -- reflected in the dueling speeches Edwards and Obama gave this week -- is being born.

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