John Edwards clearly has concluded that his presidential chances rest on drawing the sharpest possible contrast with Hillary Clinton and the Establishment policies and politics she represents. In a speech today, Edwards went on the attack:
[S]mall thinking and outdated answers aren't the only problems with a vision for the future that is rooted in nostalgia. The trouble with nostalgia is that you tend to remember what you liked and forget what you didn't. It's not just that the answers of the past aren't up to the job today, it's that the system that produced them was corrupt -- and still is. It's controlled by big corporations, the lobbyists they hire to protect their bottom line and the politicians who curry their favor and carry their water. And it's perpetuated by a media that too often fawns over the establishment, but fails to seriously cover the challenges we face or the solutions being proposed. This is the game of American politics and in this game, the interests of regular Americans don't stand a chance.
Politicians who care more about their careers than their constituents go along to get elected. They make easy promises to voters instead of challenging them to take responsibility for our country. And then they compromise even those promises to keep the lobbyists happy and the contributions coming.
The choice for our party could not be more clear. We cannot replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats, just swapping the Washington insiders of one party for the Washington insiders of the other.
But cleaning up Washington isn't enough. If we are going to meet the challenges we face and prevail over them, two principles must guide us -- yes, we must end the Washington game, but we must also think as big as the challenges we face. Our ideas must be bold enough to succeed and our government must be free to enact them without compromising principle or sacrificing results.
One without the other isn't good enough. All the big ideas in the world won't make a difference if they have to go through this broken system that remains controlled by big business and their lobbyists. And if we fix the system, but aren't honest with the American people about the scope of our challenges and what's required of each of us to meet them, then we'll be left with the baby steps and incremental measures that are Washington's poor excuse for progress.
As Bobby Kennedy said, "If we fail to dare, if we do not try, the next generation will harvest the fruit of our indifference; a world we did not want, a world we did not choose, but a world we could have made better by caring more for the results of our labors."
But if we do both -- if we have the courage to offer real change and the determination to change Washington -- then we will be build the One America we dream of, where every man, woman and child is blessed with the same, great opportunity and held to the same, just rules.
I substantially agree with the Edwards critique of "corporate Democrats," though I recoil somewhat at the possibility of overdoing it; after all, we want corporations tamed, not destroyed; their wealth-making powers more equitably shared, not curtailed; their influence (which protects that wealth-making capacity) checked by other considerations, not eliminated entirely.
While this attack has merit, though, it's also fairly predicable and represents not just a rhetorical shot across the Clinton bow, but a new determination on the part of Edwards to seize the mantle of Idealist/Reformer/Not-Hillary from Barack Obama, who's trying to win that title through a much less overtly confrontational campaign approach. The model for both men is Robert Kennedy; Edwards, who quotes Kennedy in the speech, is going after RFK's speaking-truth-to-power cred, while Obama is focusing on the hope that Bobby inspired in millions of Americans, black and white, rich and poor, young and old.
I've written about the tricky nature of the RFK legacy before, but it's worth considering another aspect of the legend for the purposes of the 2008 campaign. RFK rose to his mythical stature through martyrdom, but his prominence as a national figure--the reason he became such a factor in the 1968 race--initially came because he was the brother of another martyr, President John F. Kennedy. Were it not for the emotional resonance he created by looking and sounding so much like the late and much-loved JFK, Bobby's stinging critiques of structural racism and economic injustice (not to mention the Vietnam War, for which he was present at the creation and bore a special obligation of penitence) would not have gotten nearly as wide a hearing.
In other words, he had to be a celebrity before he could become a prophet. And the wellspring of his celebrity was his status as the late president's brother.
Of course, Bill Clinton isn't a martyr to anything but his own bad judgment and, perhaps, the irrational Puritanism of Ken Starr and the self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy of Newt Gingrich. But he still confers a reflected glow upon his wife--and just as support for RFK was based in no small part upon nostalgia for the too-short Kennedy Administration, Hillary Clinton's backing comes in significant part from the public's fond memories of her husband's two terms (which, compared to what followed, really do look like a golden age).
RFK's celebrity gave him a pedastal from which to launch his critiques of American society and his pledges to create a government that would act in greater alignment with our highest principles. The critiques of Edwards and Obama might be no less powerful, but they don't have the platform. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, does have the platform... but she isn't using it to say much of consequence. Sadly, I think the size of the megaphone will trump the quality of the message, and she will be the nominee.