John Edwards, Populism, and the Record

(originally uploaded by John Edwards 2008)

Update: After Edwards’ ugly third place performance at the Nevada Caucuses today, this issue is largely academic.  The only question is whether he should drop out now, or wait till February 5th.


In an interview published this past Thursday, populist US Senator Russ Feingold accused John Edwards of ideological patent infringement:

The one that is the most problematic is (John) Edwards, who voted for the Patriot Act, campaigns against it. Voted for No Child Left Behind, campaigns against it. Voted for the China trade deal, campaigns against it. Voted for the Iraq war … He uses my voting record exactly as his platform, even though he had the opposite voting record.

When you had the opportunity to vote a certain way in the Senate and you didn’t, and obviously there are times when you make a mistake, the notion that you sort of vote one way when you’re playing the game in Washington and another way when you’re running for president, there’s some of that going on.

As Chris Hayes observes, “Edwards has been pretty forthright about admitting he made bad votes and even, in the case of Iraq, apologizing for them” before going on to note that he’s “never heard any persuasive explanation of why [Edwards] was such a lame senator.” Apologies be damned; I for one find it hard to set aside a 6 year voting record that is the inverse of Edwards’ current policy positions, especially when he’s now asking for the keys to the White House. Whether his Senate decisions were ultimately made based on bad advice, naked ambition, or a fear of alienating his conservative Southern constituency, Edwards can’t expect to be afforded a clean slate simply because he’s now really, really sorry for not acting upon his apparent populist principles when it actually counted.

To be fair to Edwards, the other two (viable) candidates have also shilled a progressive product throughout the campaign that is largely at odds with their respective records in office (and, in the case of Obama, his conservative political philosophy). But Edwards has been the candidate most keen to tether his campaign to populist rhetoric, leaving him more open to charges of hypocrisy. The sudden adoption of a Feingold-esque policy platform smacks of opportunism, a carefully crafted postion calculated to maximize support–which may explain why many leaders in the labour movement have been hesitant to endorse his campaign.

I’m with Jonathan Singer: “when someone with Feingold’s standing…comes out with such blunt and strong language — and backs it up with real tangible facts, in this case in the form of votes on the Senate floor — it’s worth paying heed.”

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