Democrats in 2014: The Party of John Edwards

The North Carolinian laid the groundwork for Bill de Blasio's mayoral run and Barack Obama's 2014 agenda, but don't expect his name to come up.
Reuters

In his inaugural address Wednesday, incoming New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to establish an intellectual pedigree for his focus on economic inequality. He invoked Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Smith, Frances Perkins, Fiorello La Guardia, Jacob Riis, David Dinkins, Mario Cuomo, and Harry Belafonte. It reminded me of when Democrats, eager to prove their national-security bona fides, tell audiences they hail from the party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. As if there wasn’t some other Democrat after Kennedy who dabbled at war and peace, some guy from Texas.

De Blasio’s speech was a bit like that. He left out the politician who more than any other kindled the Democrats’ renewed interest in economic inequality because that politician has been airbrushed from Democratic Party history. His name is John Edwards.

Edwards, of course, was not the first national politician to decry the gap between rich and poor. As Garance Franke-Ruta noted last September, de Blasio’s "two cities" theme echoes Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic convention keynote and, almost a century before that, William Jennings Bryan's legendary "Cross of Gold" speech. But after Cuomo, the balance of power inside the Democratic Party shifted toward New Democratic politicians like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Evan Bayh, and Chuck Robb and centrist strategists like Mark Penn and Bruce Reed, who generally avoided the language of class and instead focused on proving that Democrats could foster economic growth.

It was Edwards, during his 2004 presidential run, who returned the focus to inequality by flipping Clintonism on its head. In his 1992 campaign, Clinton had talked a lot about “rewarding work.” Democrats, he insisted, would help people who “played by the rules”—for instance, via an expanded earned income tax credit for the working poor—but they would stop coddling welfare recipients. In 2004, Edwards took that judgmental tone but redirected it. In his narrative, the people disrespecting work were not welfare mothers but trust funders, people who lived off their investments rather than the sweat of their brow.

“President Bush has a war on work,” Edwards declared when he announced for president. “You see it in everything he does. He wants to eliminate every penny of tax on wealth, and shift the whole burden to people who work for a living. So people won't pay any taxes at all when they make money from selling stocks, when they get big dividends every year, or when they inherit a massive estate. But if you work at a restaurant earning the minimum wage—you'll pay more.” 

From this new moralism—directed not against the undeserving poor but the undeserving rich—Edwards built the “Two Americas” theme that dominated his campaign. In Barack Obama’s 2004 convention speech, he spoke famously about overcoming America’s cultural and ideological divide: “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America … There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America … We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.” Democratic nominee John Kerry did too. (“Some just see us divided into those red states and blue states, but I see us as one America: red, white and blue.”) It was Edwards who depicted an America divided by class, with “two different economies … one for people who are set for life … and then one for most Americans, people who live paycheck to paycheck.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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