Edwards vs. Obama: Up with history

| January 09, 2008
John Edwards' agenda may survive, but his core message may not. - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG

In the wake of John Edwards' defeat in Iowa, progressive analysts are of two minds about his campaign. One view is that, even if ultimately Edwards is not the Democratic nominee, he can claim victory because other candidates copied his populist agenda. The second view is that Edwards' agenda—some of it—may survive, but his core message won't.

Barack Obama's nomination, these analysts worry, will take the country in a sharply different direction than what Edwards wants—one that relies on high hopes, not hard struggle.

The Edwards victory thesis was sounded before Iowa by populist author-blogger David Sirota. "[L]et me just say that no matter who wins," Sirota wrote for DailyKos, "it is absolutely great that economic populism has taken center stage so far in the presidential contest. Thanks to candidates like John Edwards and Mike Huckabee ignoring the Punditburo's attacks and trumpeting the populist line, Wall Street-backed candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have had to resort to posing as populists as well—and that's a good thing. The more candidates channeling the public's righteous anger at corporate greed and economic inequality, the better."

Later, The American Prospect's Ezra Klein agreed. "Barack Obama won tonight, but in a sense, John Edwards' campaign also triumphed," Klein said. "The progressivism of the race, the focus on ideas, the courage of the Democrats—all were products of [Edwards'] early example."

Still, Edwards' and Obama's takes on what's required to fix the country's problems are vastly different.

Obama's sunny proposition is that "the cynics" are wrong, and the country will "come together around a common purpose" if we elect the right leader: someone, he told his Iowa supporters, who will work with Republicans and independents to "move beyond the divisions in Washington and ... the bitterness, pettiness and anger" hobbling our two-party politics. "You believed so deeply in the most American of ideas," Obama said, "that in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it."

Edwards' darker view is "the system" is the problem, not just the current leadership. There are two sides in Washington, he argues: big corporations, and those who are supposed to represent regular folk but too often don't. The first side fights for its right to chase profits all over the globe, Edwards says. And anyone who thinks they'll "voluntarily compromise their power away ... they will drive through you like a freight train."

"If Edwards wins," Open Left writer Chris Bowers predicted last week, "the narrative will be about progressivism and populism rising. If Obama wins, the narrative will be about partisanship and ideology declining."

The commentary's been focused on declining partisanship —with Obama, in a towering victory address aimed at New Hampshire voters, making it so.

When Obama talked about "tearing down the barriers that have divided us for so long," he evoked the Civil Rights movement—the best of our American history. When he talked about the power of hope over fear, he evoked his own history, "a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas—a story that could only be written in America."

Obama literally embodies an upbeat America. Problems? Yeah, but nothing we can't handle. Look at me! His is the triumphal version of Americana, in which the trajectory (from horrible slave beginnings) is ever-upward.

But there's a parallel history, told by such scholars as Howard Zinn (A People's History of the United States), about capitalism squashing labor in a footloose nation with little tradition or appetite for common purpose. It's a history of nativism, racism and greed often disguised as religious belief.

No doubt, were Obama running as an angry black man railing at our history, he'd be dismissed as easily as Jesse Jackson, by press and the public.

Instead, Obama's been embraced by such Washington pundits as David Broder of the Washington Post, who gushed about Obama's rhetoric ("a thing of beauty") and The New York Times columnist David Brooks, who cheered his symbolism: "Americans are going to feel good about the Obama victory," Brooks wrote, "which is a story of youth, possibility and unity through diversity."

Even better, Brooks added, Obama makes Edwards' approach, "with his angry cries that corporate greed is killing your children's future, seem old-fashioned."

That's what makes progressive activists like Nathan Newman, of the Progressive States Network, uneasy. "I'm not annoyed like some at [Obama's] 'post-partisanship' message, since the best way to build a big partisan majority is to assert this kind of non-partisan inclusiveness," Newman wrote. "[But] Obama seems to say that the problem is merely the politicians. ... [He] usually won't straight-out identify the actors outside government, namely corporate power, as a significant target for change."

For more on why Edwards lost, and his chances now, see "Edwards: The Iowa Losses," on the Citizen blog at www.indyweekblogs.com/citizen.

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Comments (1)

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Very good piece. I wish the media would have more discussions like this for the voters. I think any progressive that believes that we have to take on the corporate interests better be voting for Edwards because Obama has adopted Edwards message only for the election.

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Posted by pmorlan on 01/09/2008 at 5:32 PM
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