Here's another new year's resolution: when I write about politics here, I'm going to make much more of an effort to incorporate real policy arguments rather than just who's-maybe-winning-and-why, which is little if at all better than the brainless mainstream media coverage.
So let's begin, at this ungodly hour, with John Edwards. The former Senator from North Carolina has tried to position himself as the angry populist in the Democratic race, and has substantially staked his hopes on an upset win in Iowa on Thursday. Edwards has an emotional and, I think, effective closing ad that features a testimonial from a laid-off worker who believes that Edwards has what it takes to fight for politically and economically marginalized working people.
Edwards is offering a political narrative that partisan Democrats are likely to find satisfying: this country is becoming ever more polarized along lines of income and political access, and the unhinged greed of corporations is at fault. The Republicans have actively abetted this rapacious cartel, while Democrats--very prominently including his nomination rivals Clinton and Obama--have done too little to stop them in their current jobs and could not be counted upon to do so in the presidency. I find this analysis simplistic but certainly not wrong, which is the main reason I'd be relatively happy to see Edwards win the nomination and the November election.
But what is he actually going to do about "corporate greed"? A look at his website yields surprisingly little substance. I have a theory about this, which I'll get into in a minute--but the fact remains that while Edwards offers some detail and commendable policy proposals for supporting working families and reducing poverty, the site is silent on just how he's going to take on what an earlier generation of populists called, ominously, The Interests. Edwards does attack lobbyists and has a few proposals to sharply restrict their influence, but that's still not exactly the same thing.
What should he be promising in this fight? I'd start with the following:
- To make the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration the instruments of workplace justice they were designed to be, rather than the strongholds of anti-union mischief and corporate enabling they've been under Bush and Cheney;
- To empower the regulatory arms of the executive branch, most prominently the Food and Drug Administration, Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission, under the leadership of bulldog prosecutor types bearing the message that "there's a new sheriff in town" and that the days of consequence-free corporate lawbreaking are over;
- To submit federal budgets to the Congress that end the public subsidies to oil companies, agribusiness and multinationals and take bold steps to provide more support for the economic stability and upward mobility of the American worker.
I should note that, were Edwards to win, I believe he'd do all these things. He just isn't, as far as I can tell, talking about them right now. Why not?
I think one reason is that these steps are hard to communicate in soundbites, particularly when the likely vessel is someone like Wolf Blitzer who quite possibly doesn't know what the NLRB is. Even if he wasn't met by blank stares or derision from the Beltway Kool Kidz Klub, Edwards would face the problem of seeming to produce relatively undramatic solutions to problems he's cast as existential in nature--not a great way to motivate voters.
The second reason could be that these steps would be the policy equivalent of a football quarterback giving away where he plans to throw the ball. Giving the regulatory agencies teeth might not fire up the voting public--but it would send the Club for Growth, National Association of Manufacturers, National Federation of Independent Businesses and other Republican-leaning lobbies into a frenzy of attack that this unhinged Bolshevik would stifle the economy in his wooly-headed pursuit of hippie-dippy economic equality. (The Clinton campaign, seriously addicted to corporate money in its own right, probably would take a shot or two as well.)
So there are probably good reasons why Edwards is keeping his pitch at the level of rhetoric alone--though I do wish he'd at least try to add a little substance. At least in theory, these campaigns are supposed to make us smarter about the country we live in and how it's run; there's a lot of room to do that without going all pedantic.