So during the last few days, I became curious about this John Edwards guy. He abruptly ended up with endorsements from Iowa newspapers and surged ahead in the polls after spending most of the last few months wandering the wilderness.
But there's more to him that that, it would seem. This is a guy who refers to John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan together at the same he co-opts "it's all about values" from Republicans and returns fire:
This is a question of values, not taxes. We should cut taxes, but we shouldn’t cut and run from our values when we do. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan argued for tax cuts as an incentive for people to work harder: Americans work hard, and the government shouldn’t punish them when they do.
This crowd is making a radically different argument. They don’t believe work matters most. They don’t believe in helping working people build wealth. They genuinely believe that the wealth of the wealthy matters most. They are determined to cut taxes on that wealth, year after year, and heap more and more of the burden on people who work.
...and he keeps up this deft weave, appealing to those ol' core Democrat issues like providing health care in a more affordable way for more people, while appealing to moderate conservatives by sketching out how much said plans would cost and how he'd expect to pay for them. (We're not going to see the phrase "single-payer" anywhere in his proposals. What are you, Canadian or something?) He appeals to the anti-lobbying populists, a sentiment that cuts across conservative/liberal lines handily ("I've never taken a dime from PACs or Washington lobbyists and I never will"). He proposes tougher standards for clean air and water around "large corporate farms" and government help for small farmers to comply with those new requirements (all in a platform piece on rural America, something one doubts most candidates specifically single out), then moves on to energy policies that are clear riffs on Amory Lovins' "Natural Capitalism" theories. Edwards calls the treehuggers and the loggers to sit down with Milt Friedman for coffee and pie.
I'm not knocking Edwards. I'm amused, but intrigued. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were both successful largely by bridging gaps, and Clinton mastered the art of compromise. No, not like that, and stop giggling! I mean he was extraordinarily effective in getting most of what he wanted accomplished, because he knew how and when to cut deals. As much as we tend to romanticize the notion of the uncompromising champion, our political system has always rewarded those who played well with others. The most partisan partisans look at that as a failing -- but it's not a bug, it's a feature.
But an interesting aspect of that feature is that it tends to reward candidates who run toward the center. Clinton ran toward the center. Reagan ran toward the center. And, yes, Bush ran toward the center. But Bush hasn't been the amiable moderate he sold himself as; he's been more of a hard-line ideologue than anyone who's been in office in decades. Dean has been the boldest in hammering that point home, which is why he keeps getting tagged as "angry."
Dean motivates people, and that's good. He actually says something. I think that's been a problem with the Democrats in recent times; "vote for us because we believe in America and we're nice guys" is content-free and thus motivation-free. But if the "run to the center" theory is correct, Dean is in trouble unless he moderates himself. (The Iowa caucus shouldn't be given a lot of weight in this, mind you, since historically it's been good at separating out strong candidates but been poor as a predictor of actual nominees.) It also may mean that Bush is in trouble because of the colors he's flown pretty openly for most of this term. (I'll be terribly, terribly surprised if Bush doesn't become a born-again centrist in tonight's state of the union address, relying on the electorate's history of having a short term memory.)
Edwards doesn't have to be born-again. He's already a centrist, and it would seem he aspires not to the nondescript mushiness of Gephardt and Kerry but to the gap-bridging approach of Southern Democrats who've parlayed that successfully to the presidency. I suspect that's because one has to be good at appealing to multiple constituencies to get anywhere in the South as a Democrat: you can't lose the blue-collar, labor and civil rights core there and win as a Democrat, but if you only get them, you'll lose. You also have to capture a fair chunk of the "Dixiecrats," the relatively conservative Democrats who've been turning Republican over the last few decades.
All this meandering has made me aware that save for Dean, I'm not really aware of any of the positions of the candidates, other than Kucinich as the "real progressive" (which he may well be, but the theory predicts that and a buck-fifty will get him a cup of organic fair-trade coffee). What little I've seen of Kerry is unrelentingly bland, and so far Clark has been damn quiet for a guy who made such a splash entering the race.