Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Audacity of Dopes: Why Is John Edwards Acting Against His Interests?

I appreciate, and largely agree with, Matt the Eponymous Superstar's defense of John Edwards, against those who claim he has no "fresh ideas" to combat poverty.

"No, Edwards hasn't uncovered the Magical New Idea To End Poverty -- rather he's assembled some old-but-not-implemented good ideas, is pushing for increased efforts on some old-and-effective ideas, etc., all in recognition of the fact that despite some difficulties the country has consistently shown itself capable of significantly reducing poverty whenever we're really cared to try."

Yeah, exactly. Only Edwards does have a fresh new idea that, in my opinion, is going to sink his efforts to combat poverty: running for President.

Edwards is a lot like Al Gore in this respect: both men sat in public office for a good long time. Both men have causes they're passionate about. And in the case of both men, the evidence strongly suggests that their ability to promote and advance their pet causes was never stronger than after they left elected office. And it's easy to see why: they were freed of all the sundry mischegas of public office, disconnected from the skin of K Street and the distractions of consensus building, liberated from the warped standards that constitute success on Capitol Hill.

Gore's advancing of enviro causes has been the more dramatic--he's got old political opponents on his side, pop-cultural ascendancy, and all sorts of vital industries (building and construction being chief among them) taking up the selling of green like never before--but Edwards has had his successes, as well. I especially admire the work he's done at UNC-Chapel Hill--establishing the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity directly led to the school taking a fantastic new approach on bringing students from poor backgrounds into the University fold, and their model is replicable. That's vital change occuring at the nexus of education and income.

So, it's a mystery to me why Edwards wants to turn his back on this work and suffer the burden of revisiting the cheapened exchanges of public office, let alone run this country. In public life, advocacy has time to percolate and allow for reflection and experimentation. As President, the demands are all "FIX THIS NOW! WE WANT RESULTS IMMEDIATELY!" And the level of scrutiny is 1000% more intense. The mis-steps that are essential to pursuing perfection in the real world become toxic taints on the Hill. One screw-up and no one will tolerate you fucking about with pet projects anymore.

Besides, I'm not even sure if Edwards fully understands the game he's asking to play in seeking the nomination. I'm sure he sees the Katrina aftermath as a moment he can occupy, and I'm betting he thinks he can use the Presidency as a launching pad for all sorts of important change, but that's such a facile, simplistic grasp of contemporary electoral reality that it make you want to hug him for being so adorable. How many months into his presidency is he going to get before begging someone to find him a Poverty Czar?

Besides, he's tried this before, with his "Two Americas" campaign agenda from the last Presidential Election, and as a theme, that was about as unserious as it gets. It conjured up images of adversarialism, pessimism, pity, and added a constant reminder of a deeply entrenched problem to what was already going down as a 9-11 terror and sorrow election. And appropriately, "Two Americas" didn't even survive the convention. After Barack Obama delivered his keynote--which may as well have been titled, "No, ONE America, Actually"--the reaction left little doubt as to what version of America was more salable.

Still, the electoral outlook is crazy volatile at the moment. And Katrina might yet play very well in the next year or so. It'd be foolish to count Edwards out. Still, I'm not at all afraid to admit that I don't think Edwards is a serious candidate. And, funnily enough, Katrina has a lot to do with it.

It's clear by Edwards actions--e.g. kicking off his campaign in the gulf--that Katrina is going to be a centerpiece of his campaign. And I'm equally sure that we're going to hear a lot from him about how Katrina--and, stop me if you've heard this one before--exposed the shameful way the poor in this country have been treated.

Don't get me wrong: it did and they have. But this is the provenance of true believers and armchair sociologists, not Presidents. To conclude that the main thing Katrina exposed was our treatment of the poor is to miss the point entirely: if you aim to change the situation through governance, you have to correctly identify the problem. And the problem is this: Katrina exposed the tendency of our government to institutionalize the state of neglect. The failed levees did not fail because the subcommittee in question wanted to stick it to the poor. Those levees failed because they were just another can too easily kicked down the road. If Edwards could seize on that, then he could use it as a springboard to address a host of other issues in the same state of decay: Social Security, Medicaid, legacy liabilities...the list goes on.

But that would require him to be a pretty serious candidate.


Dave said...

Huh? John Edwards has only been in politics since 1998.

Al Gore, on the other hand, has been in politics virtually his entire life, and was in Congress or the White House since 1976.

The Deceiver said...

Uhm...okay: Gore sat in public office for a "gooder, longer time." My point's the same.