Edwards’ populism is a risky bet

Times Staff Writer

When Elaine Ellis began her rounds as a New York nursing assistant one morning this spring, she had an improbable companion: John Edwards, the Democratic presidential candidate, who had accepted a union invitation to spend the day with a low-wage worker.

When Ohio steelworkers went on strike last fall to protest a plant closing, who joined their rally? John Edwards.

Next month, low-income survivors of Hurricane Katrina will have another visit from former Sen. Edwards (D-N.C.), who announced his presidential campaign amid the storm rubble of New Orleans.


For more than two years, Edwards has been methodically building his campaign around an issue long shunned by leading Democratic candidates: the plight of the poor and working class. He has backed up his public appearances with unusually detailed proposals to provide universal healthcare, raise taxes on the rich and eliminate poverty over the next 30 years.

“This is a huge moral issue facing the country,” Edwards said in a telephone interview as he headed into a Memorial Day weekend campaign swing through Iowa. “I don’t see in polls that it is a driving issue [for voters], but it is for me.”

In adopting poverty and low-wage work as his themes, Edwards has struck a far more combative, populist tone than in his 2004 presidential campaign. And that has helped him elbow into the top tier of a field dominated by better-financed candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) -- and has even boosted him to a lead in polls in the key early-voting state of Iowa.

But Edwards’ 2008 strategy carries risks, in part because it speaks most directly to a slice of the electorate that has notably little political clout. Perhaps the last major presidential candidate to make fighting poverty a central theme was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) in 1968, before his assassination that June. Some analysts warn that an agenda that might suggest “class warfare” risks alienating middle-class swing voters and moderate Democrats who do not want to revive criticisms that theirs is the party of the poor.

“It is very brave to take on an issue that he himself says has no constituency that has power, but it’s a tough road to be trodding to the White House,” said Matt Bennett, a vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic research organization.

Still, the centrist drift of Bill Clinton’s presidency, with its emphasis on reining in welfare and helping the middle class, has left many activists and liberals hungry for a return to the party’s traditional commitment to the disadvantaged.

“That appeals to Iowa Democrats,” said former state party Chairman Gordon Fischer, who is not affiliated with any candidate. “It’s the kind of throwback that appeals to traditional Democratic values.”

But Edwards’ focus on the disenfranchised has also left him open to allegations of hypocrisy. Wealthy from his career as a lawyer, Edwards has been pummeled by reports that he spent $400 for haircuts, built himself a 28,000-square-foot mansion on a 100-acre estate, and did consulting work for a hedge fund that trafficked in offshore investing of the sort he had criticized.

“It has hurt him, and I say that as someone who admires and respects John Edwards a tremendous amount,” said Fischer.

Edwards says being well-off does not disqualify him from being an effective advocate for the have-nots of the world. He points to his modest roots.

“I haven’t forgotten where I came from,” he said in the phone interview. “I came from nothing and have been successful. Most people think that’s a good thing.”

Edwards’ up-by-the-bootstraps life story was a central part of his campaign for the presidency in 2004, as well as of stump speeches after he was named Sen. John F. Kerry’s running mate. The son of a millworker, Edwards grew up in a tiny North Carolina town and was the first in his family to go to college. He went on to law school and in time made millions, largely by representing plaintiffs in lawsuits against big companies.

His 2004 campaign had an element of populism, with its critique of “two Americas,” one for the rich and the other for ordinary people. But his tone was more cautious than today, and his image was one of a Southern centrist.

In the years after he and Kerry lost the 2004 election, Edwards has labored to establish himself as a champion of the disenfranchised. He established a research center on poverty at the University of North Carolina, which gave him a platform for speaking to important Democratic constituencies around the country.

“The poverty center was a significant piece of infrastructure that kept him in the national dialogue,” said Ferrel Guillory, an expert on Southern politics at the University of North Carolina.

Edwards also established two nonprofit organizations to develop and run anti-poverty programs, including one that helps poor students in North Carolina pay for college. The groups also helped him maintain ties with campaign lieutenants and donors, several of whom helped run and finance the nonprofits.

Edwards also spent much of the last three years building bridges to organized labor. He campaigned in six states for 2006 ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage, and he traveled to help labor-organizing campaigns for janitors and hotel workers. He won an AFL-CIO award for his contributions to the labor movement.

It remains to be seen, however, whether his heavy bet on labor will pay off in formal endorsements. The AFL-CIO and other big unions often hold off on making endorsements until the likely nominee becomes clear. In 2004, Unite Here, which represents textile and hotel workers, was the only union to back Edwards.

Edwards has also developed a detailed anti-poverty agenda that he hopes will cast him as a candidate of big ideas.

“What I am offering are very clear, bold policy initiatives that I think the country needs,” he said. “I don’t think small, incremental steps are enough.”

Edwards has said he aims to end poverty in America in 30 years, with an interim goal of cutting it by a third in 10 years.

A pillar of his plan is to give low-income families housing vouchers so they can move into better neighborhoods. Similar programs were tried in the 1990s to mixed effect. Research on a Clinton-era program found that the vouchers led to improved health and safety for participating families, but not to increased employment or income levels.

Edwards has also proposed a “work bonds” program to help low-income workers build assets, by matching some of their wages with a tax credit that would be put into savings accounts. He wants to create 1 million jobs for the jobless and to start a college tuition aid program like the one he established in North Carolina.

It is not clear whether Edwards’ message is reaching far beyond the political elite and activist core. In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, Edwards was regarded as the most conservative candidate in the Democratic field. And though Edwards is connecting with labor activists, he does not appear to be catching on among minorities who might seem a natural constituency. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that most blacks supported Sens. Clinton or Obama. It found negligible support among blacks for Edwards.

The broader political challenge in championing a new war on poverty is that middle- and upper-class voters may not see it as relevant to their lives. But Edwards also has initiatives aimed at the economic insecurity higher on the income ladder, such as his plan for universal health insurance. That plan would require people to buy health insurance, demand that employers pay part of the cost, and expand government programs for the poor.

“Most people do think of themselves as middle class -- especially the people who vote -- while the poor are a minority,” said Ruy Teixeira, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “Health insurance is a good way of welding together the poor and middle class and doing something for both at the same time.”

The cost of Edwards’ campaign promises is a tidy sum -- more than $125 billion a year, according to an estimate by the Associated Press. But Edwards says deficit reduction should take a back seat to fighting poverty and expanding health insurance. He has also suggested that he might raise taxes on the affluent to help pay for his programs.

His message of economic populism and strident opposition to the Iraq war may not be well-received everywhere, but it seems to be working in Iowa, where Edwards is leading in many polls.

“Edwards is the perfect Iowa candidate,” said William A. Galston, a former advisor to President Clinton. “But if he cannot win Iowa, he is dead.”



Anti-poverty agenda


Key points in John Edwards’ plan to cut poverty in America:


* Give low-income families

housing vouchers so they can move into better


* Issue “work bonds” to help low-income workers build


* Create 1 million jobs for the unemployed

* Start a college tuition aid


* Develop universal healthcare

Source: Times staff