The Anti-Establishment Edwards
Can ideas move voters? That is the theory John Edwards began testing once again today with his speech in Iowa about taxing the wealthy and providing new tax breaks for the middle class.
Edwards's speech was the latest in a series this year designed to lay claim to being the boldest Democrat in the presidential field. He was first out with a universal health care plan. He spent three days last week elevating the issue of poverty to the 2008 agenda. Today he returned to a theme that was central to his first campaign: turning two Americas into one.
Almost exactly four years ago, Edwards delivered a speech at Georgetown University laying out his ideas about how to change the tax code. The principal theme in that speech and today's was identical. The tax code has been unfairly skewed to reward wealth rather than work and needs to be changed.
Edwards would put the balance where he says it belongs, by forcing the wealthy to pay more and giving strapped middle-class families new ways to save, buy homes and send their children to college.
But a comparison of the two speeches illustrates how this former senator has retooled himself as a Washington outsider and a scourge of the capital's governing class. Four years ago his principal target was President Bush and what he referred to as the corporate swindlers. Today his target was the entire Washington establishment.
In that earlier speech he referred to himself as part of the Washington power structure. Today he has nothing but contempt for those in the capital. Twelve times he mentions Washington -- all in a negative context. "Washington is broken... Washington puts Wall Street before Main Street... The powerful "scratch Washington's back and Washington scratches theirs."
That kind of rhetoric crowds Barack Obama, who is seeking the mantle of the fresh face who can shake up the political system. Both aim their criticism at a political system they argue is dominated by corporate interests and lobbyists; both promise to sweep the capitol clean -- but with a difference. Edwards offers a pugnacious pledge to fight and fight and fight some more; Obama offers a gentler and more uplifting call for citizens to help him transform the very nature of our politics.
In today's speech, Edwards also sent an elbow in the direction of Hillary Clinton -- or at least her husband's governing strategy during his second term. "We can't triangulate our way to big change," Edwards said in his prepared text. "We can't compromise our way to big change. We need to lead our way to big change."
Many of the proposals offered by Edwards today echo those of four years ago, but with more bite on the wealthy. Edwards would now raise the capital gains tax rate on the wealthiest Americans to 28 percent; four years ago he called for a 25-percent rate. Now as then he favors tax credits to help lower income families save money.
Having drawn criticism for his work at a hedge fund, Edwards once again called for raising taxes on hedge fund and private equity managers by forcing them to pay taxes on their earnings as ordinary income rather than as capital gains. "We need to end the special breaks for insiders," he said.
Packaged together, the tax measure give Edwards and his advisers a fresh opportunity to present claim that he is the Democrat who is doing the most to define a presidential agenda for the post-Bush era.
Will it work? Polls certainly don't show much correlation between Edwards's repeated calls for big change and a groundswell of support, either nationally or in most of the early states. Only in Iowa is his base seemingly solid.
Edwards deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince argued that voters in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire pay attention both to ideas and to who is leading the issues debate. Prince said: "They notice the substance of the ideas and the leadership involved in offering them... Is that a pattern you're going to pick up in national polls in July, no I don't think so."
By January, he predicted, they will.
Others may be listening who can give Edwards a boost before then. Labor unions in particular are paying attention and some leaders like what Edwards stands for and the way he says it. Edwards is angling to win the support of at least some of the most politically active unions.
There may be another factor in all this however, one suggested by the candidate's wife in a recent interview. At the time there were 19 candidates in the Republican and Democratic races.
"Only one person's going to be president," Elizabeth Edwards said, "and 18 campaigns will have been about some person and accomplished nothing else. If he's one of the 18 - he certainly doesn't hope or expect to be - but if he's one of the 18 who goes home, he wants to have a campaign that accomplished something, that remains or lasts."
Moving voters is still Edwards's principal motivation. Short of that, he also hopes to use his voice to move his party. The jury is still out on both.
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