Fight, Fight, Fight

Watching John Edwards’ closing argument.

John Edwards. Click image to expand.
John Edwards 

Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne sang a set of four songs on their two-day New Hampshire tour with John Edwards this week. My favorite was John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” the lonesome tale of a woman trapped in an empty marriage. As a teenager, when I first heard the song and learned to play it (it’s just four chords), I didn’t stop to think about what the words meant, but the song worked anyway because the music and the melody are so lovely.

I’ve had the reverse experience listening to John Edwards make his final pitch to voters before Election Day. I get the lyrics loud and clear, but I have trouble hearing the music. What seemed missing were the persuasive passages that draw in people who don’t already agree with you.

Edwards has offered a constant pitch this campaign, unlike Hillary Clinton, who seems to change her message every few days—she’s inevitable, she’s human, she’s a woman, she’s experienced, she’s a workhorse. Edwards is going to fight like hell to punish, diminish, and shred the corporations who are responsible for, well, everything that’s wrong with the country. “Corporate power and corporate greed have overtaken this democracy,” he says. “It’s that simple. And we have to take it back. This is not abstract. It goes through everything we need to do in America.”

The pitch works in the town halls. His audiences applaud a lot. Other candidates are making a similar pitch, too, so it’s clear there’s a sizeable constituency in the Democratic Party that loves this populist message. In Manchester on Wednesday, Barack Obama did his best John Edwards imitation: “I am running to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda are over. They will not run the White House and they will not drown out the American people’s voices in the United States of America.”

Obama argues that he has a longer record of going after the special interests than John Edwards, but after listening to the two of them, Obama’s sounded like a watered-down version. If you want the candidate who is going to pound the loudest on the CEO’s frosted glass door, John Edwards makes a compelling case that he is that man.

The case Edwards doesn’t make is that such measures are necessary. He simply asserts that they are. Edwards doesn’t address those in the audience who might say to his corporate bashing: “But isn’t it more complex than that?” As Jonathan Alter points out in one example, the drug companies Edwards portrays as the root of so much evil are helping his wife with her cancer. You can believe that corporations do bad things but that they should be regulated, not eviscerated.

Edwards’ view is that people don’t need convincing. First, he’s in the home stretch, and tactically that means pounding home one clear message to rally your base. Second, and more important, say his aides, voters already agree with Edwards’ diagnosis about corporate America and they get new evidence every day, like the recent energy bill. It is the defining issue of this race, the way the war was in 2004, so Edwards doesn’t have to belabor the point. As proof that voters are already in a populist mood, Edwards aides point to the extraordinary number of people who think the country is on the wrong track. That may prove that a lot of people are unhappy, but it doesn’t prove that they’ve settled on Edwards’ sweeping approach. Nor does it prove that people who are already uneasy are anxious to embrace dramatic changes that will, even if successful, create more uncertainty.

Edwards’ pitch is that he’ll fight the hardest against the oil companies, drug companies, and agribusinesses. At the top of his speech, he tells a story about coming home at age 4 or 5 after having lost a fight. “Don’t you ever start a fight,” his father tells his bruised and bloodied son, “but don’t you ever walk away from a fight, either.” But was that really such good advice? There are plenty of fights worth walking away from.