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.
In the run-up to his 2008 presidential bid, Edwards became even edgier. At a time when poverty was considered an issue of marginal political utility, Edwards set up a research center on poverty at the University of North Carolina. He spent the summer of 2007 on an eight-state poverty tour meant to echo Robert Kennedy’s trip through Appalachia in 1968. He officially launched his campaign from New Orleans’ desperately poor, hurricane-ravaged Ninth Ward. At campaign stops, he sometimes brought on stage a man unable to speak for most of his life because lacked the health coverage to fix his cleft palate.
Under pressure from Edwards, Obama in 2007 went to Washington's Anacostia neighborhood to unveil a series of anti-poverty proposals and, in an anti-Edwards jab, declared that, “This kind of poverty is not an issue I just discovered for the purposes of a campaign. It is the cause that led me to a life of public service almost 25 years ago.” But neither poverty nor class unfairness enjoyed the prominence in Obama’s campaign that it did in Edwards’. Indeed, Obama never uttered the words “inequality” or “unequal” in his 2008 convention speech. And while Obama used Mitt Romney’s wealth against him in 2012, he rarely discussed poverty on the stump.
Now, of course, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, Elizabeth Warren, and Pope Francis, economic inequality has become motherhood and apple pie for Democrats. Obama will reportedly make it a centerpiece of his final years in office. Meanwhile, John Edwards, having endured more public disgrace than any recent American politician not named Anthony Weiner, has launched a small plaintiff’s law firm in Raleigh, North Carolina. He recently told The News & Observer that he hopes “to give regular people who have been treated unfairly a chance against really powerful opponents and well-funded opponents.” Some things never change.