An article from last month’s Nation magazine talks about what Edwards has been doing this year, since he founded his Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC:
Between visits to shelters and job-training centers and delivering his new stump speech, full of ringing challenges to view poverty as “the great moral cause of our time,” Edwards has raised more than $4 million for Democratic legislative candidates in mostly red states, trying, as he says, “to build the party back from the ground up.” He’s teaming with unlikely partners on the left–including local AFL-CIO, ACORN and NAACP chapters–in campaigns to raise the minimum wage in Ohio, Arizona and Michigan. He’s praising Big Labor’s historic role in “lifting millions of Americans out of poverty.” And he’s floating serious–and surprisingly liberal–proposals to put his high-flown rhetoric into action. He’s touting a controversial “cultural integration” plan to give low-income families housing vouchers to move into better neighborhoods. He’s calling for expansions to Bill Clinton’s earned-income tax credits, for concerted crackdowns on predatory lenders, and for “work bonds” to help low-income workers build savings and assets. He wants not only to repeal Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent but also to raise capital-gains taxes for those on the top rungs. After Hurricane Katrina he spoke pointedly about how “the face of poverty in America is the face of color” and promoted an ambitious Gulf Coast recovery program modeled on FDR’s Works Progress Administration–a touchstone for the kind of big-government liberalism that the old Edwards (like most Democratic leaders today) wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole.
The article goes on to list three lessons Edwards has learned since his last run for president:
Lesson One: Stop thinking small. “I think in our effort to be elected, we’ve become minimalists, tinkering around the edges–Our tax cut is better than yours, or, We’ll give you smaller class sizes,” he says. “That’s not what the country wants. We’ve got to give the American people something big and important to be unified by. Republicans use big things to divide America. I think we can use big things to unite America.”
Chief among those “big things,” clearly, is an all-out effort to conquer poverty. “Both sides bear responsibility for what’s happened,” he says. “During the Great Depression with Franklin Roosevelt, during the 1960s with Lyndon Johnson’s great War on Poverty and Bobby Kennedy going through Appalachia–we were the party that led the fight against poverty in this country. We’ve got to show some backbone and stand up for the folks who are struggling. We’ve done it in the past, but it’s been a while.”
Which brings us to Lesson Two: Democrats can’t afford to keep ceding the “values vote.” Here again, Edwards sees his antipoverty crusade as a step in the right direction. “In a country of our wealth, to have 37 million people living in poverty? It’s a huge moral issue,” he says. … “Edwards is not going to appeal to the religious right,” Guillory says. “But he could make a strong appeal to ‘values voters’ who are not hard-core conservatives.”
Steve Jarding, the rural strategist who set fundraising records running Edwards’s PAC in 2002 before leaving the campaign in frustration, thinks his moral spin on the “two Americas” message has real potential in Middle America. “Let’s face it: There are millions of families sitting down at the table tonight, parents working two or three jobs and struggling to survive. Are they sitting there saying, Thank God two gay people aren’t getting married? or, I’m so glad the girl down the street can’t get an abortion? That’s not what’s tearing their families apart. If Edwards will stand up and tell them that, he could change the turf.”
Lesson Three is also about changing the turf: Democrats, who’ve now lost every state in the nation’s largest region in two straight elections, have to take their message south. “Look,” Edwards says, “the fact is, if you lose the whole South, you’ve got almost no margin of error in the rest of the country. But it’s more than that. We have to make it clear we’ve got a vision for the whole country, not just blue states.”