Catching Up With John Edwards
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.
-- ``Sometimes," says John Edwards, ``people need a breather."
He is not talking about himself, although surely he needed one
after his brief rocket ride through the upper atmosphere of national
politics. That ride ended -- or perhaps paused -- when the Kerry-Edwards
ticket lost. The people whom Edwards thinks really need a breather
from presidential candidates are the voters.
But Edwards is roaming
around, with 2008 in mind. His travels to more than 30 states
have been organized around his interest in poverty. His Senate
term ended nine weeks after the election and he went to earth
here. While his wife, Elizabeth, continues to recover well from
breast cancer, he is director of the new Center on Poverty, Work
and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina.
Most Americans seem
to regard as the only searing economic injustice the violation
of their constitutional right -- surely it is in the Bill of Rights
somewhere -- to cheap gasoline. But Edwards believes attacking
poverty can be a politically energizing issue if, by stressing
``work, responsibility, family," the attack ``is built around
a value-system the nation embraces."
In a speech shortly
after Katrina, he rightly stressed the correlation of family disintegration
-- especially out-of-wedlock births -- with many social pathologies
associated with poverty. He said, ``It is wrong when all Americans
see this happening and do nothing to stop it."
But no one knows
how to stop it. Anyway, spending at least $6.6 trillion on poverty-related
programs in the four decades since President Johnson declared
the ``war on poverty" is not ``nothing." In fact, it
has purchased a new paradigm of poverty.
Edwards has a 1930s
paradigm of poverty: Poor people are like everyone else, they
just lack certain goods and services (housing, transportation,
training, etc.) that government knows how to deliver. Hence he
calls for a higher minimum wage and job-creation programs. And
because no Democrat with national ambitions will dare to offend
the teachers unions, he rejects school choice vouchers and says
this: ``Give working parents who are poor housing vouchers so
they have a chance to move into neighborhoods with better schools."
But the 1930s paradigm
of poverty was alive in 1968 when the National Advisory Commission
on Civil Disorders, created in response to urban riots, thought
this would be an imaginative cure: government creation of 2 million
jobs. This, at a moment when the unemployment rate was 3.7 percent.
The 1930s paradigm
has been refuted by four decades of experience. The new paradigm
is of behavior-driven poverty that results from individuals' nonmaterial
deficits. It results from a scarcity of certain habits and mores
-- punctuality, hygiene, industriousness, deferral of gratification,
etc. -- that are not developed in disorganized homes.
Edwards, who does
not recognize the name James Q. Wilson, may have missed this paradigm
shift. Many people in public life, and almost all those with presidential
ambitions, are too busy for the study and reflection necessary
for mastering any subject.
In 2000, just his
second year in the Senate -- his second year in public life --
Edwards was on the short list of finalists to be Al Gore's running
mate. Edwards' appetite was whetted and he began the peripatetic
scurrying around that preceded his run for the 2004 presidential
nomination. He lost but was the last man standing against John
Kerry, and he can torment himself with plausible thoughts about
how, with this or that tactical move, he could have won the Iowa
caucuses -- he finished second, with 31.9 percent of delegate
strength to Kerry's 37.6 percent -- and the nomination.
wonder what red states Hillary Clinton could turn blue in 2008,
the wondering does not help Edwards, whose presence on the 2004
ticket did not sway his own state: In 2000, Bush beat Gore-Lieberman
in North Carolina 56-43. In 2004, Bush beat Kerry-Edwards here
56-44. And Democrats know that Gore might now be in his second
term if he had carried his home state.
Edwards says one
lesson of 2004 is that presidential elections ``are not issue-driven";
rather, they are character-driven and voters see issues as reflections
of character. The issues ``show people who you are." Perhaps.
But the idea that
the candidate's persona is primary and that issues are secondary
is a mistake made by some Democrats who yearn for another John
Kennedy. He was a talented but quite traditional politician, whom
many Democrats wrongly remember as proving that charisma trumps
substantive politics. Edwards, who has been called Kennedy-esque,
has a stake in that yearning.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group