The NYT magazine has a great profile of John Edwards, titled ‘The Poverty Platform’. A few snippets:
About a month after the 2004 election, Edwards met with his most loyal advisers at his cluttered home on P Street in Georgetown. It was assumed he might run again, and the question facing Edwards was how best to spend his time, intellectually and politically. There was talk of a foreign-policy study group, or maybe something to do with education, another huge issue for Democrats. It was Elizabeth, hearing Edwards expound yet again on poverty, who finally pushed these other suggestions aside. What Edwards clearly cared about most, she said, was poverty. She knew her husband better than anyone, and she knew that poverty was the issue that really lighted him up during the campaign, the one he had brought home with him and railed about in the privacy of their kitchen. Maybe it wasnâ€™t the most exploitable issue in Democratic politics, but if thatâ€™s what animated Edwards, why shouldnâ€™t he just go out and do something about it? …
Since Ronald Reagan, Democrats have largely avoided talking too much about social programs for the poor, fearing that middle-class voters would recoil at the thought of more of their hard-earned money going to welfare moms. Some progressives have tried recently to get around this problem by arguing that there really isnâ€™t much of a distinction anymore between the poor and the middle class â€” that, as inequality worsens, the once-solid middle class, as the Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren has written, is â€œvanishing.â€ By this theory, average voters should now support antipoverty programs because those same programs will benefit the middle class. This is a tricky formulation, since it seems to rely on a narrow and convenient definition of â€œmiddle classâ€ â€” namely, struggling households headed by two working parents with no education beyond high school. In fact, as the Washington policy group Third Way documented in a recent report, middle-class college graduates have performed remarkably well in the new economy, and while their debts have risen, their wealth and assets have accumulated even faster. It turns out that the middle class, in the sense that most Americans think of it, isnâ€™t vanishing at all.
Edwards seems conflicted about which argument to make. He is most compelling about poverty when heâ€™s talking about it as a national obligation â€” what he calls â€œthe moral issue of our time.â€ But he also recognizes the need to persuasively connect it to the self-interest of middle-class voters. â€œFor the majority of Americans, you have to convince them that itâ€™s good for America and good for them,â€ he told me. â€œWhich means itâ€™s important to strengthening and growing the middle class. Itâ€™s important to the inequality issue. Itâ€™s important to America, and as a result important to them personally.â€ Edwards summarized his message to voters this way: â€œWeâ€™re all in this together. Do you love your country? We want everyone to have a chance.â€
I saw Edwards speak in a Kennedy School debate in 2004, and was pretty underwhelmed at his lack of policy detail (a common critique at the time). So it’s impressive to now see him positioning himself as the #1 policy wonk of the Democratic field.