The Breakfast Table

The John Edwards Question

Good afternoon, Jim:

Let’s start with your observations about the Democrats—Gore, Clinton, and the newcomer, John Edwards. Gore is going to run because he and many Democrats believe he won in 2000, and he certainly did win the popular vote. But he ran an awful campaign and appeared to more than a few voters as a person who did not know who he was. At the convention he exclaimed that he was “his own man,” but as the three debates with Bush showed, he did not answer that question—”Which man is that?” Gore beat himself in so many ways that some Democrats close to him have stopped counting. He had every advantage over the Texas governor, except one—he did not know how to be as folksy and loose a fellow as Bush—note the debates again.

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Clinton is a vastly overrated politician. He got the reputation as what you called a “naturally talented political phenomenon” because he got out of scrapes of his own making, and he was blessed in 1996 with Bob Dole who signaled loser from early on—some of these signals involved his trademark humor. Clinton presided over the loss of Congress by the Democrats to the Republicans. As head of his party he saw it lose many key statehouses and governors’ seats. He shored himself up by picking up some key issues from the Republicans and thereby leading his party into look-alike land. But then, for Clinton, politics has always been about him rather than also building a party and a social justice movement. (For more, see my book Crashing the Party;see also the Robert Reich op-ed piece in the March 11, 2001, Washington Post on the decline of the Democratic Party—he uses much stronger language.)

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John Edwards was a very good trial lawyer and talks populism in a fresh though not very specific way. If he makes a difference should he receive the nomination and be elected president? His senatorial record can shed some light on that question. Sure, on the limited number of votes that come to the floor, he registers progressive. But has he introduced or supported fundamental reform legislation on health care, labor rights, consumer protection, military-budget reform, corporate crime (one of his specialties as a tort lawyer bloated corporate welfare hundreds of billions of dollars), access to government by ordinary citizens … ? No, instead he has been very cautious—letting his new style and fresh looks lead the way rather than what he could have done, proposed and articulated for a deeper democracy. He along with all other Democrats, except Sen. Feingold, voted for the notorious so-called U.S. Patriots Act that will haunt our civil liberties tradition in many ways unless repealed.

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A couple of years ago, I was asked about John Edwards in North Carolina, and I replied—”He is capable of becoming a lot better than he is at present.” Meaning—sure, if the citizenry organizes to restore popular sovereignty over corporate sovereignty in the councils of government, Sen. Edwards would rise to the occasion. But that is not transforming leadership—to use James M. Burns’ words; it is still heavily reactive. Just read the Wall Street Journal and you cannot avoid concluding that Big Business gives out its marching orders in a bipartisan manner to Democrats and Republicans alike—enough for getting their way over the few dissenters.

The Democratic Party, as a party, has not responded to the growing, though still not large yet, defections of its progressive voters to the Green Party. It is entirely free to take away the issues from the Greens—that is, if the corporate Democrats free the party to do so. Not likely. A whole new political reform movement, coming from an aroused and motivated citizenry, is long overdue. The two parties have had their chance to shape up and declined. The necessities of too many people in our country have been ignored, and the injustices too long fostered by two parties marinated in the same business cash that is proliferating vastly from election to election—or shall we say from auction to auction. I do not see Edwards willing to take on such entrenchment.

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By the way, commentary on our exchange is coming in, and those who are lending their opinions on the tort system may wish to log on to www.centerjd.org for current research.

Today’s New York Times carries a column (Page 27) by William Safire on Bush’s reversal regarding a key privacy principle. Bush told Safire during the campaign he was for giving consumers and patients an opt-in right. Now his government is pushing opt-out. Opt-in means consumers have to give affirmative consent to have personal data sold to other parties.

The Wall Street Journal reports on D-1 that Hawaii is poised to regulate the maximum price of gasoline—a cap to counter the oil giants privately regulating supplies.

Nice exchanging with you, Jim. Look forward to your next book.

Signing off,
Ralph

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