"[Ending poverty]," said Sen. John Edwards, D-NC, "is the cause of my life." These words and countless others demonstrate that if there is a candidate among the top Democratic contenders for president who is the true champion of the America's underclass, it is not Sen. Barack Obama, D-Il, and certainly not Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY.
Notice the word "if" above. To not have included it would have been embarrassingly ahistorical, for we all know from the last decade or two what a disappointment a Democratic presidential victory can be.
Actually, Bill Clinton turned out to be not so much a disappointment as the worst kind of catastrophe. His egregious personal life aside — though I suppose his pathological lying and pathological adultery merits at least a mention — the ex-president was a real bastard. Remember the '90s? It included quasi-genocidal sanctions against the Iraqi people, welfare "reform" and the Defense of Marriage Act. I think Alan Greenspan understated it when he said, "[Bill Clinton] was the best Republican president we’ve had in a while."
Yes, Mr. Clinton was part of the nasty U.S. political machine, a machine whose wheels are spun more often by corporate interests than the American people (Mr. Edwards is, too). I have no illusions about the Democratic establishment being anything more than the better half of the same ugly organism.
But other than a weak base for social movements and a nonexistent viable third party, what else do we have? The Democrats may suck, but it's the best we can do for now, even if we don't like it. And I see no contradiction between voting for a Democrat and working for social change outside the electoral system, anyway.
So, if you accept my logic about the need to swallow the lesser evil, why is Mr. Edwards the best choice? He does, admittedly, share many of the deficiencies of his chief rivals, like a bad position on Iraqi withdrawal, a hawkishness on Iran that goes too far and a gay rights stance that doesn't go far enough, among other things.
But Mr. Edwards has a few distinctions, not the least of which is his consistent and biting attacks on American poverty. He has embarrassed Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama by demanding they match his call for an increase in the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2012, almost a $4 increase. He has also promised to enact legislation that eliminates the health care of Congress (all 535 members get "socialized medicine," in case you didn't know) unless they pass a universal plan.
It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that Mr. Edwards has become the candidate of organized labor. He has received the crucial endorsement of several unions, most crucially the United Steelworkers of America and its 1.2 million members. Last week, the former senator sent a taped video of support to Houston public workers who were in a fierce duel with the city over wage increases in their contract. I just couldn't imagine Mr. Obama or Ms. Clinton doing the same.
It's also worth mentioning his bold plan for college tuition. Under his plan, if a student agrees to work part-time during his first year, then the government will pay for one year of tuition, fees and books. He also advocates an elimination of billions of dollars of loan subsidies and an expansion of other financial aid. It's not an exaggeration to say that if Mr. Edwards had his way, every American could comfortably afford college.
But what's most appealing about Mr. Edwards is his rhetoric, which has more than just superficial importance. His talk of the campaign against poverty as the "new Civil Rights Movement" and denunciation of "two Americas" raises the expectation of what kind of society America should be and the responsibility of government in solving social ills. By pointing out that poverty should be unacceptable in a nation as wealthy as ours, for example, Mr. Edwards pushes the spectrum of mainstream political opinion solidly to the left.
Again, this kind of speech is unique to him among the frontrunners. It is Mr. Edwards, not Mr. Obama, who is talking like a radical. It is only Mr. Edwards who has explicitly called for a new labor movement and said that American destitution can be eliminated in our lifetime. He has conquered the territory of left-wing economic populism, and regardless of his many policy inadequacies, this is a commendable achievement.
I suppose there are legitimate reasons for going Green, going Nader or not voting at all. But if you have resigned yourself to voting for the lesser evil, Mr. Edwards is your guy.
Kyle Szarzynski ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in Spanish and history.