Friday, February 15, 2008

Bringing New Heat to a Bright Light

Mr. Edwards, far more than is usual in modern politics, ran a campaign based on ideas. And even as his personal quest for the White House faltered, his ideas triumphed: both candidates left standing are, to a large extent, running on the platform Mr. Edwards built.
So notes economist Paul Krugman in a recent editorial. I have been a supporter of those ideas for a while now, and was disappointed that Edwards was unable to find the (astronomical) funding necessary to be a consistent player in the race. I cast my caucus support for Obama, but reluctantly, as I felt he had not offered much in the way of substance. (That, and like a good "movement conservative," I'm not interested in bi-partisanship. I'm interested in eviscerating the GOP.) But that tide is starting to turn, as Obama begins to tout more publicly the policy choices that would inform his presidency. And I'm pleased to hear things like this:
We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control. The fallout from the housing crisis that’s cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle. It was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington – the culmination of decades of decisions that were made or put off without regard to the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it’s produced.

It’s a Washington where George Bush hands out billions in tax cuts year after year to the biggest corporations and the wealthiest few who don’t need them and don’t ask for them – tax breaks that are mortgaging our children’s future on a mountain of debt; tax breaks that could’ve gone into the pockets of the working families who needed them most.

...I will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers.

...We’ll be called upon to take part in shared sacrifice and shared prosperity. And we’ll have to remind ourselves that we rise and fall as one nation; that a country in which only a few prosper is antithetical to our ideals and our democracy; and that those of us who have benefited greatly from the blessings of this country have a solemn obligation to open the doors of opportunity, not just for our children, but to all of America’s children.
This is populism, but it's politically polished populism that shows a level of restraint which Edwards wasn't willing to display. As a successful attorney, I have no doubt he was capable of restraint; part of what I loved about him was his willingness to forgo it. Passion is a kind of truth, too. But Obama's polish has proven more charismatic to more people. Now, it's beginning to read as a velvet-gloved fist.

First of all, he's right. There are specific policies that led us directly to this point -- bipartisan ones. A great example of this is 2005's cynically named "Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act," a more accurate name for which might have been "Cutting Off Our Only Escape Route and Protecting Usurious Credit Corporation Profits Act." "Grab Your Ankles" for short. But people don't like their truth unvarnished.

Here's what I mean by polish: Obama says, "the wealthiest few who don’t need [tax breaks] and don’t ask for them." This is utter rubbish, and Barak knows it. The rich and the corporate spend millions of dollars in lobbyists and campaign contributions precisely to secure these favors. They don't just ask for them, they order them up like specials off the dollar menu. But a line like this says, "Hey, I'm not attacking the rich. This isn't a class battle. This is me against W, who's giving the country away." Edwards wouldn't put it that way, and even if he did he wouldn't be heard that way because of his well mapped trenches.

But the speech and the message are pure Edwards. Obama doesn't come out with the "two Americas" phrasing (that Edwards may as well have copy-righted). But his last paragraph is soaked with the subtext of anti-privilege, pro-middle and working class language. Obama says:
...a country in which only a few prosper is antithetical to our ideals and our democracy; and that those of us who have benefited greatly from the blessings of this country have a solemn obligation to open the doors of opportunity . . . to all of America’s children.
Obama means: "The rich shall not build their empire by subjugating the poor. 'To he who much is given, from him much is expected.' The Bush tax cuts will be repealed. You will compensate the society that has made your wealth possible. An unregulated market is not free; it's extremely expensive and those who pay the tolls should have a share of the rewards. The rich have not been paying a toll; that toll is disproportionately paid by the workers and the workers have not been rewarded. I am going to see that that changes."

It is refreshing to me to hear this kind of message come more explicitly from a person who I think stands the best chance against John McCain. As Obama has sharpened his populism and his race against Hillary enters the back stretch, I am not the only one to notice this. The Boston Globe's Robert Kuttner writes
Tuesday night in Madison, Wis., Obama offered his usual generic themes of hope and change, but he was also quite pointed in defining what he meant. The American dream, he said, is "the dream of the senior I met who lost his pension when the company he gave his life to went bankrupt. He doesn't need bankruptcy laws that protect banks and big lenders. He needs us to protect pensions, not CEO bonuses."

. . .Coming from Edwards, similar words were often criticized as divisively populist. But Obama manages to be a unifier - yet around a very progressive critique of what ails America.

It's nice to see.

1 comment:

crumthekid said...

I saw have seen Edwards live 2 times. One during his first try and one this time around. This time all of the optimism was gone from his speech. It seemed like Edwards was a man that has known he has the best ideas for a long time. And he seemed like a man that was getting tired of trying to convince everyone of something that was so obvious to him. He came off (when I saw him live and in other venues) as whiny at times and I think I would too if I were in his situation.

Edwards did come the closest of any of the major candidates to showing Americans how far Bush has taken our eye off of important issues at home. Particularly with his focus on poverty he brought some focus to the fact that we are inexcuseably neglecting the part of our population that needs us the most.