Politics Columns & Blogs

Christensen: Echoes of John Edwards in the 2016 campaign

Former Sen. John Edwards outside the Federal Courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., May 23, 2012, where he was being tried on six charges related to violations of campaign-finance laws.
Former Sen. John Edwards outside the Federal Courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., May 23, 2012, where he was being tried on six charges related to violations of campaign-finance laws. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Under different circumstances, Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would be vying for the endorsement of John Edwards.

The last time there was an open race for the presidency, Edwards was one of three major contenders for the Democratic nomination, along with Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Since then there has been, as they say, a lot of water under the bridge – especially the scandal involving Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter, and his lies and efforts to cover up their child born out of wedlock during that 2008 campaign.

Edwards, a former North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president, has been so politically discredited that no one wants his backing in the March 15 primary.

But while Edwards is a political ghost, echoes of his message of blue-collar populism are very much alive in the Democratic presidential race. Sanders, in particular, has taken up Edwards’ critique of a system that he argues has become rigged in favor of the ultra-wealthy, lobbyists and Washington insiders and against ordinary working Americans.

It is sometimes hard to remember Edwards’ message, because so much of it has been lost in the scandals and colored by his personal failings.

In the 2004 campaign, Edwards tapped into the economic insecurities of Joe Lunch Bucket, just as Sanders and Republican Donald Trump are doing now. While Americans had prided themselves on being a middle-class nation where the lines of class were blurred, the gap between the haves and the have-nots had been widening. Too many factories had closed, too many pensions had been lost, and too many people had taken jobs making a fraction of what they used to make.

Edwards’ theme was the “two Americas.”

“It seems today we have two Americas,” Edwards said in a New Hampshire primary TV ad in 2004. “With two health care systems, one for the privileged, the other rationed by insurance companies. With two public school systems, one for the haves, one for everybody else. Two governments, one for powerful interests and lobbyists, the other for the rest of us. Two tax systems, where the wealthy corporations pay less, working families pay more.”

Critics sometimes accused Edwards of engaging in class warfare. But the themes he took to both the declining Rust Belt towns of the Midwest and the textile towns of the South are helping drive this presidential campaign.

As Peter Beinhart of Atlantic Magazine has noted, Edwards’ emphasis on income inequality was a break from the Democratic Party’s immediate past. Such New Democrats as Bill Clinton and Al Gore had emphasized national unity and economic growth, and they had supported trade deals such as NAFTA that were backed by many business groups and Republicans. Obama did not make income inequality one of the focal points of his campaign.

In his second presidential run in 2008, Edwards doubled down on the issue, helping start a center to study poverty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and spending the summer of 2007 on an eight-state poverty tour. He launched his 2008 campaign in New Orleans’ poor and hurricane-ravaged Ninth Ward.

Edwards’ themes run throughout Sanders’ campaign in particular, in which he emphasizes income and wealth inequality, and trade deals that have hurt American workers.

In announcing his candidacy, Sanders said, “I don’t believe that the men and women who defended American democracy fought to create a situation where billionaires own the political process.”

To a lesser extent, Clinton has picked up some of the same themes. “Corporate profits are at near record highs and Americans are working as hard as ever, but paychecks have barely budged in recent times,” Clinton said last year.

There is some Edwards crossover in campaign staffs as well. Michael Briggs, who was Edwards’ senatorial communications director, is now Sanders’ campaign communications director. Tad Devine, a media consultant for Edwards’ Senate campaign, is now a senior adviser to Sanders.

Edwards’ campaign communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, is now doing that job for Clinton.

But even without staff cross pollination, candidates are picking up the themes of the dispossessed working class.

Consider the message of Trump. “The hedge fund guys are getting away with murder,” Trump said last year. “It’s the wrong thing. They’re making a tremendous amount of money. They (should) have to pay taxes. The middle class is….getting absolutely destroyed. This country won’t have a middle class very soon.”

John Edwards, who is now practicing law in Raleigh, couldn’t have said it better.

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