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What John Edwards Brought Us

LNW_Edwards-bye.AP [1]We are voting for Senator Barack Obama in the primaries—as many times as possible. The more we see of him, the more we like. But first, we want to take a parting glance at the contributions our First Favorite, John Edwards, made to the presidential campaign of 2008.

We pushed hard for Edwards, and it’s hard to let go, but we’re grateful to him for returning the Democratic party to its populist roots. Our strongest gratitude is for the attention he brought to New Orleans and for the bold ideas he proposed, which, to the public’s benefit, Obama and Clinton have incorporated to some extent into their own campaigns.

• Let’s start with New Orleans. Edwards showed where his heart is by announcing his candidacy from a front yard in the Ninth Ward. He was the first to propose a definite plan for New Orleans. Last August, on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he pitched six good ideas [2] for helping the city and the Gulf Coast—proposals that could be easily applied to other American cities and disaster areas. What impresses us is Edwards’s specificity: A politician tends not to think in such detail unless he really cares.

One proposal we particularly liked is “Brownie’s Law,” which would require that senior political appointees “have demonstrated qualifications in the field related to their job.” Edwards also called for fully funding the Road Home program and for the appointment of both a Gulf Coast Inspector General and a Chief Recovery Officer “to channel presidential leadership, ensure accountability, cut red tape and deliver results for the people of the Gulf Coast” (please!). Click here [2] for the full list.

We have seen no comparably detailed ideas from Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama has recommended (and we agree) that FEMA be made independent of the Department of Homeland Security, as it once was, and that its director be appointed to a six-year term and have the direct, cabinet-level access to the president that James Lee Witt had with President Clinton. He also recommended the closure of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), a good idea that was already being proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

• In January Edwards called for the removal [3]of all U.S. troops from Iraq in 10 months. He said the U.S. should immediately withdraw 40,000 to 50,000 troops, and have nearly all forces out within ten months, leaving only a contingent of no more than 5,000 to protect the American embassy and possibly humanitarian workers. We have heard no such call from Obama or Clinton.

• On health care, as Paul Krugman has pointed out [4] in convincing detail, it was John Edwards who did the seemingly impossible and mandated universal coverage through a practical, public-private hybrid solution [5] that gives you the option of staying with your private insurer and letting you buy into a government-sponsored, Medicare-type plan. And he was bold enough to call repealing the Bush tax cuts on incomes of over $200,000 to help pay for it.

• Edwards also took the lead on the environment—in March 2007—with ideas for halting global warming, achieving energy independence, and strengthening the federal commitment to the Clean Air and Water Acts. The environmental web site Grist.org [6] called his proposals “far and away the strongest, most comprehensive climate and energy plan among the three front-runners. . . . On these issues, Edwards has done his homework, and he’s not trimming his sails.”

Well, that was then . . .

With two star candidates to compete against—plus a former president to boot—he had a hard time breaking through. TV cameras seemed only to have eyes for Obama and the Clintons, and reporters seemed to have the attention span only for two Democrats at a time (curiously, the multitude of Republican candidates did not seem to present a similar attention deficit).

As Krugman observed [4], “the willingness of his rivals to emulate his policy proposals made it hard for him to differentiate himself as a candidate; meanwhile, those rivals had far larger financial resources and received vastly more media attention. Even the Times’s own public editor chided the paper for giving Mr. Edwards so little coverage.” (“The Edwards Effect,” Feb. 1, 2007).

Edwards’s fighting populist message could not have been appealing to the mega-conglomerates that run the networks or to their corporate advertisers such as the drug companies and oil and war profiteers. But we thank him for reminding America of the idea of the social compact (who else was talking about the social contract?), for standing in the cold with striking workers, speaking for the poor and the working class, the workers of all levels who have been burned by downsizing or the loss of jobs to lower-wage workers overseas.

In announcing the end of his campaign in New Orleans on Jan. 30, Edwards said: “I don’t know when our party began to turn away from the cause of working people, from the fathers who were working three jobs literally just to pay the rent, mothers sending their kids to bed wrapped up in their clothes and in coats because they couldn’t afford to pay for heat.” His one request to Obama and Clinton, when he called to advise them that he would be withdrawing, was that they commit to making the ending of poverty a central theme of their campaigns. Promises are cheap in politics, and it is up to these candidates’ supporters to hold them to their pledge. It’s our fellow citizens, ourselves, who will suffer if we do not.

Finally, we thank John Edwards for never forgetting New Orleans, and reminding the nation that there is a great city and a wide swath of America still devastated by a natural disaster + manmade disaster (failure of levees) as well as by unnatural, inhumane governmental disregard. We are grateful to Edwards for having the good sense of dramatic closure by bringing it back home to the Ninth Ward when he announced his withdrawal from the race, and we’ll do our part by pressing the remaining candidates and other officeholders to fulfill the ideas proposed by Edwards for New Orleans and for the United States of America so that we can be One Nation once again.

Now, about that Attorney General idea . . .

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See “Department of Corrections: About That John Edwards Endorsement [7]” [LNW 2/18/10]

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