Friday, December 29, 2006

Edwards' Poverty Theme Competes With Iraq Talk

This Wall Street Journal analysis of the John Edwards' anti-poverty agenda suggests that the former senator may have a hard time getting past the Democratic Party's Iraq debate as the primary season kicks up:

Many Democratic political operatives remain skeptical that the Edwards message will resonate among either Democratic or independent voters when antiwar talk is the rage, and could continue to be into 2008. On the eve of Mr. Edwards's announcement, rival Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware drew headlines with his pledge to oppose any increase in U.S. troops to Iraq.

Other Democrats say Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, could emerge as standard-bearers for a domestic agenda that competes with that of Mr. Edwards. Mr. Obama, especially, is seen as a rival to Mr. Edwards for the candidate who best projects optimism and hope.

Those cheering on Mr. Edwards's antipoverty crusade include party strategist Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager in his 2000 presidency bid. Recalling Mr. Edwards's past emphasis on the "Two Americas" theme, she says: "In 2004, that message went largely unheard. To his credit, he kept at it. And Katrina demonstrated the validity of that message."

Ms. Brazile is admittedly biased toward the message if not the messenger. (She says she will remain neutral in the Democrats' 2008 contest.) A native of New Orleans, she visited her father in the city this week for the holidays. Seven siblings and her extended family were among those displaced to other parts of Louisiana and seven other states, and like tens of thousands, they continue to struggle 16 months after Katrina to rebuild lives, careers and wrecked houses, she says.

Mr. Edwards plans to officially announce his 2008 candidacy to reporters today during a break on reconstruction work in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans's most impoverished and hard-hit neighborhood. He is there with college volunteers he has mobilized. Earlier this year, Mr. Edwards labored in nearby St. Bernard Parish with nearly 700 student supporters who were on spring break from colleges in 27 states.

Yet as Mr. Edwards has suggested in speeches, his antipoverty theme is broader than helping Katrina's victims. He speaks of "the forgotten middle class" and of workers generally, who have seen their wages stagnate and benefits erode. He will expand on that message in coming days, seeking to take advantage of the slow-news holidays with a post-announcement tour of early primary and caucus states that could quickly decide both parties' nominees. Mr. Edwards is set to jet to Iowa, then crisscross the nation to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina before ending Saturday in his home state, North Carolina. He plans to host town-hall-style events at each stop.

The former senator essentially has been campaigning since 2004. He has kept most of his top staff and donors together, and operatives in key places such as Iowa; he rates high in polls in that first caucus state. His email list has grown to more than 700,000, and union leaders are enamored of his populist message, Democrats say. Mr. Edwards's recent enlistment of labor stalwart and former Michigan Rep. David Bonior as campaign manager was plainly a bid for union support.

After the 2004 election, Mr. Edwards became director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he has solicited policy ideas for fighting poverty. He previewed his emerging antipoverty program most comprehensively in an address in June at Washington's National Press Club.

In that speech, he set a national goal of ending poverty in 30 years for the 37 million Americans living below the poverty line, lifting one-third of them above it in each of the next three decades. His "Working Society" agenda would mean a higher federal minimum wage, reduced taxes for low-income workers, universal health care, and one million new housing vouchers for working families, to help them find homes in neighborhoods with better schools.

Mr. Edwards proposes "Work Bonds" to provide tax credits to match low-wage workers' own long-term savings. He calls for the government to partner with nonprofit organizations to create a million "stepping stone" jobs, to help welfare recipients and others get experience on local projects so they can go on to better-paying private-sector jobs. And he would open "second-chance schools" aimed at the increased number of high-school students who drop out before graduating.

Mindful of the current headlines, however, Mr. Edwards has paired his domestic agenda with a call to immediately reduce U.S. forces in Iraq by at least 40,000. And he has taken pains to put his domestic vision in a global context. As he put it at the National Press Club six months ago: "How we work to improve our country and lift people up is also critical to restoring American leadership in the world."
I think Edwards' consistent anti-poverty advocacy since the 2004 campaign puts in him good stead against Barack Obama. I noted this point in my earler post on Edwards' campaign announcement and the changing nature of pre-primary presidential politics. Hillary Clinton's a much more substantial challenge, as she's really the odds-on front runner at this point.

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