June 1, 2012

I'm long past the point where I vote for politicians on the basis of their "character," because I know that we don't actually know anything about their characters. All we see is a carefully-designed presentation. And if you think you really know any of them (or their wives), you're deluded. You're projecting, and they'd like to keep it that way.

How you can tell something about a politician is where he places his focus. And John Edwards was the only person in the 2007 primary campaign who was talking about the poor. That's why I supported him.

I always thought the case against Edwards was not only weak, but heavily politicized. (Notice that no one indicted John Ensign. He got his wealthy parents to pay off his mistress and her husband, and the payments were structured to avoid public disclosure. See "IOIYAR.")

Instead, we had an ambitious Republican prosecutor, a holdover from the Bush administration, who made unprecedented charges against Edwards and pretty much destroyed him. That prosecutor resigned to run for Congress. That heavily-publicized gossip spectacle just ended in Edwards being found innocent on one count, and a mistrial on the rest of the charges.

I still like John Edwards. I don't especially care that he had an affair (as Amanda notes in this article, you'd empty out every cocktail party in D.C. if you started indicting people for that), because people make mistakes. And I don't care that he had a couple of $400 haircuts, either. What happened between him and his wife was their business, not mine. But the inspiring words he spoke about lifting up the poorest, about the two Americas? That was our business, and we're worse off for the silencing of his voice.

It’s become customary in politically obsessed circles for observers to preen about how they knew that Edwards was bad news all along. His lawyerly ways! His sentimental stories about growing up working class! His hair! How could his silly supporters not see him for the philandering phony he so clearly was?

Of course, a quick perusal of the John Edwards of 2007 demonstrates that this sort of hindsight owes more to revisionist wishful thinking than a correct assessment of the evidence at the time. Back then, the other potential Democratic nominees, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, were widely and correctly perceived as timid centrists who had a knee-jerk tendency to run from conflict the second conservatives ruffled their feathers. Edwards, on the other hand, spoke convincingly of how change couldn’t come from “negotiation and compromise,” arguing that the idea that corporate interests would voluntarily give away their power is “a fantasy.” Long before the economic crash and Occupy Wall Street forced major Democratic politicians to address the question of growing inequality, Edwards’s famous “two Americas” rhetoric helped force the issue onto the table. Occupy boiled it down to the 1 Percent vs. the 99 Percent, but back in 2007, Edwards was taking cracks at “the very rich vs. everyone else.”

In the rush of headlines about Edwards’s despicable sexual behavior, what’s forgotten is how much his campaign haunted the primary contest between Clinton and Obama long after he dropped out. An early push in the campaign season from Edwards on healthcare reform set the tone for the rest of the election season on this issue. Edwards put out a plan for healthcare reform before the other candidates, forcing the other candidates to release competing plans that were likelier farther to the left than they were comfortable promising. It’s arguable that without the primary season pressure from the Edwards campaign, the initial gambit of the Democrats in the healthcare reform battle — one that included a public option — wouldn’t have been as strong, which would have meant an even weaker bill than the one that eventually was pushed past conservative Democratic opposition.

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