Wednesday, January 31, 2007

An Evolving Appraisal of John Edwards

At the close of the 2004 campaign, I regarded Edwards as a decent human being, a relatively intelligent politician and a figure with particularly strong, though not extraordinary, charisma. His career as a trial lawyer and a one term senator gave me no evidence that he would be an effective leader, but neither did most of the candidates I had to choose from. I really liked his focus on poverty in his speeches, though his "Two Americas" rhetoric and his endless references to his mill working father drove me nuts after the 50th time I heard it.

Months after the campaign, I had the opportunity to hear him speak firsthand.

He was speaking under the pretense of promoting his new "focus" of eliminating poverty in America. His speech left me convinced, however, that it was just the beginning of his 2008 presidential campaign. His speech lacked any real substance. It was filled with the standard empty political bravado and appeals to the standard ideals that all politicians love to invoke, but never actually attempt to lead us towards. But at least I was reminded, three more times, that his father worked in a mill (I'm not joking, three times in 35 minutes).

In short, my opinion of him dropped.

Still, I have been keeping an eye on him. As Hillary and Obama work to wear each other down this year, he will continue to build on an already formidable campaign. He obviously did extremely well in 2004 and I do not think the ultimate failure to defeat Bush has damaged him to any significant degree as it did John Kerry. Furthermore, he has nationwide name recognition and a tested political machine that is in full swing and proving effective, despite the lack of media coverage he is receiving relative to Hillary and Barack.

In the speech I witnessed him give a couple years ago, I was frustrated with the standard appeal to ideals without a call to specific action. Edwards gave a bit of evidence in a recent interview that he may have learned that actual leadership requires both. The last several lines of the article caught my attention:

Edwards has decided to sell America on sacrifice.

"I am totally comfortable with the word sacrifice, with asking people to
sacrifice for their country," [Edwards] said.

Among the sacrifices:

To reduce carbon emissions, Edwards recognizes that people may have to pay
more for gasoline. And he is not ruling out new taxes or increasing old ones.

The universal health care plan he wants is going to be expensive and some
people will have to pay more.

Eradicating poverty, his signature issue, will also require more money from
taxpayers. And Edwards does not favor any new tax cuts for the

Isn't there a risk in asking voters to sacrifice while other candidates are
promising them things? I asked him.

"There is clearly a political risk, no question," he said. "But I
actually believe this is what America needs."

I am not quoting these lines because I agree with all these suggestions. I cite them because they are actual tangible ideas to support a broader notion that I think is essential to our economic prosperity as a nation: the need for sacrifice on the part of American citizens.

Three hundred billion dollar structural deficits, a perpetually increasing multi-trillion dollar national debt and a political culture that regards the mere discussion of tax increases as political suicide is not a sustainable situation for this country. Economic growth alone will not solve these problems. If Americans do not want higher taxes, that is fine - as long as they are willing to sacrifice some of their children's eventual Medicare insurance, Social Security benefits, and/or dramatically cut the funding for our military.

It is about time more serious politicians put the well-being of their country above their own ambition and say so to a public audience.

Edwards' new willingness to do so is encouraging. If he continues to do so to significant audiences, he has a fair chance of getting my vote.


Unknown said...

Hey Jared! Good to read your thoughts on Edwards in this article. Ever since that speech on campus years ago, I have been unable to believe he is, or could be, a man of true substance. His ambition - shown by the fact that he was already back out campaigning, before realizing what is was he believed in and wanted to support - appeared to strongly dominate his agenda, rather than that agenda being dominated by concern over particular issues and solutions. (I also found it disturbing that he was back campaigning, without anything to campaign about, while his wife was still newly battling cancer.)

Still, your take on his recent stances has given me pause. I don't know if I could say I lean as plausibly towards voting for him as you do, but at least I have a recharged ear with which to listen to his campaign rhetoric.

Unknown said...

Well, I'll certainly vote for Edwards before I vote for McCain, who, for me, has gone from "veteran whom I respect" to "politician of whom I am suspicious" to "patsy whom I despise." Thankfully, his polling numbers are plummeting, so maybe he'll be dead in the water even before the primaries.