First, my congratulations to Barack Obama, not just for his convincing victory in South Carolina, but for a stirring speech that has to inspire all but the most hard hearted and cynical Democrats.
Last night, immediately after he spoke our telephone rang. It was my mother-in-law, who had been calling Dan all night, passionately discussing election updates and cheering on Obama, her chosen candidate. Anybody who knows my husband Dan will tell you his personality is enthusiastic and sparkling. Compared to his mother, though, he’s a dud. This woman invented enthusiasm. Dan handed me the phone, “It’s mom. It’s for you.”
I shot him a quizzical look and took the phone. Her bright voice bubbled with inspiration as she asked, “So, who’re you voting for now?”
“I’m sticking with Edwards.”
I think I’m officially the family curmudgeon. I am that hard hearted cynical Democrat. At that moment, the TV screen flashed to Edwards. “Pat, I love you but gotta go.” I said. Even she wanted to hear Edwards, whom she had backed last time. I was for Howard Dean back then.
What Obama’s wonderfully upbeat speech failed to do for me, John Edwards’ speech did. It captured every reason I’m still for him.
Where Obama talks of uniting us, Edwards speaks about fighting for the disenfranchised poor, the working class whose salaries have been stagnant for years, those who have lost their insurance, their pensions, now their homes and their safety net. He promises to be their voice to speak truth to power.
When Obama speaks of uniting black and white, men and women, and young and old, I am with him. But when he challenged the notion that the rich don’t care about the poor, he lost me. Not irrevocably but as long as John Edwards is in there fighting. That’s because I don’t believe the rich, as a cohort, actually do care about the poor, the middle class or their own workers. I think there are individuals who are rich who happen to be very caring and lovely. And many of them support John Edwards as well as Barack Obama and other Democrats.
But can anybody tell me honestly that the top CEOs of America’s most powerful and prosperous corporations care about the workers whose pensions they’ve gutted and whom they have laid off? Did Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling, Jack Walsh, Dennis Kozlowski, and Frank Nardelli really care as they rode a wave of excess into a new gilded age while leaving their companies all the poorer?
Too often when industries fail, high wages for the workers, and the unions that won those wages for them, are immediately blamed. You see that in the struggling auto industry. But not enough people, even today, point the finger at CEOs whose extravagant salary, bonuses, mansions, servants, and exclusive condos – all paid for by their companies – bankrupt their investors. Indeed, those CEOs and the business writers who cover them, feel a great sense of entitlement to exactly those expensive perks, which often continue as their companies fail to meet profit goals. When those same executives screw up on the job, they leave their corporations with golden parachutes that were negotiated into their contracts to insure them against failure. In other words, they have no incentive to succeed since failure is just as lucrative for them.
But their workers lose jobs, fall into long term unemployment, lose health benefits, which usually are employer provided, and lose pensions and often their life savings, which have been tied up in company stock and company 401 (k) plans.
Most of the super rich, in fact, still live by the ethos of Gordon Gekko, from the 1980s film Wall Street, that “greed is good.” When that movie came out, the audience, not realizing that Gekko was the villain, actually cheered when he gave that speech.
The public has been so seduced by Reagan era assumptions about the absolute wisdom of free markets that any attempt to fix a now failing economy can’t get beyond band aid approaches to shore up industries. No plan, no matter how much it stimulates the economy in the short run, will help the structural inequity built into our economic system. We’ve already seen this in a roaring economy, where the profits do not trickle down to the worker. So, merely stimulating profit and strengthening industry will not help the ordinary worker.
Putting money in the pockets of displaced and unemployed workers to increase their buying power, while helping some of this short term pain, will actually be more helpful to the Asian worker whose products we still import far too often.
The type of structural changes needed, including tax incentives to encourage American corporations to bring jobs back home; a tax code that penalizes them for exporting jobs; government investment in infrastructure and green industries, which will produce more jobs as well as help the environment; and some sensible regulation to protect worker and consumer safety; raising the minimum wage; providing a living wage; and investing in education are all solutions that will never be implemented without a fighter willing to take on entrenched interests and ideological free marketers. A fighter, not a uniter, will have the only chance of putting forward the bold ideas that challenge these entrenched notions and fixing what actually ails our economic system.
The last set of bold ideas that radically altered our economy and drastically realigned our politics came from Republicans. But they were the supply side, free market, shrink the government ideas of the Reagan era. And they weren’t so new either. They were the shopworn laissez faire capitalism ideas of the 19th century all gussied up in brand new phrases. They failed in the 1930s and they are once again failing the common man and woman.
That’s why this is the perfect time to re-evaluate their failure and to critique their underlying assumptions. This is the time to talk about what an efficient and well run government can do to help its citizens become once again the prosperous and productive workers that they were from the 1950s through the mid 1960s. It’s the time to remind people of the policies that truly ensured prosperity for the largest number of Americans rather than just a privileged few, such as FDR’s New Deal, which rescued our country from the Great Depression, and JFK’s New Frontier, when we were encouraged to “think not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” rather than the Reaganesque “Greed is good.”
I think John Edwards is the one willing to challenge the economic orthodoxy coming out of the ivory tower universities and corporate boardrooms. And I believe that is why the media, ever the handmaiden to centrist corporate interests, has deliberately marginalized his campaign.
It is possible that Obama’s message might have still resounded more effectively than Edwards’ message has. It probably would have because Americans do like optimism, hope, and unity more than they like angry populism. But I think the fight would be much closer and John Edwards’ ideals more closely examined if the media hadn’t focused so much on the horse race rather than the issues.
I don’t like being had by the media. And the best way to keep the issues alive and to keep both the true frontrunners, Obama and Clinton, focused on a progressive agenda that doesn’t forget the basic economic inequity in our country is to keep John Edwards’ campaign alive a little longer so that it can exert some leftward pressure on the frontrunner.
So, for now, I’m sticking to Edwards.