Obama, Edwards and "Change"
Paul Krugman of The New York Times has struck a big chord in the blogosphere with a new column that basically makes the case for John Edwards (as opposed to Barack Obama) more effectively than Edwards himself has been able to do so far.
Krugman begins by stipulating there's not much difference between the two candidates on substance. He then makes two distinct arguments. The first is that by talking about bipartisanship and an inclusive approach to lawmaking, Obama is giving up leverage against corporate opposition to big domestic policy changes in advance, while Edwards is more realistically aiming at mobilizing anti-corporate public sentiment in a no-holds-barred, winner-take-all fight. The second is that Edwards as the Democratic nominee would ride a populist tide to a big victory, while Obama would probably win, but by a narrower margin that would limit his presidential power as much as his conciliatory rhetoric.
The first argument, which is also often made against Hillary Clinton, has always struck me as one that inflates tactical into strategic differences. Let's say Obama's elected president, and begins with an inclusive approach on health care. Let's say further that Krugman's right, and that corporate interests and/or conservatives prove to be obdurate in their opposition to any significant change. Has Obama lost or gained political capital with an initially conciliatory approach? Hard to say, as an abstract matter. If, on the other hand, John Edwards is elected president, and promotes a health care plan by way of an uncompromising assault on corporate interests, what will he do if he fails? Keep at it eternally until he wins, or compromise? That's hard to say as well, and it's even harder to say whether the Obama or Edwards approach would get the best and/or fastest results from a progressive point of view.
So in the end, the first argument for the Edwards approach depends pretty heavily on the second: the idea that Americans are begging for an anti-corporate, highly confrontational populism, and will reward its most forceful advocate with a big majority in 2008 and beyond.
There's not much question that anti-corporate populism is a sentiment that's on the rise, for the very obvious reason that the current administration and its GOP allies have engaged in a long pattern of mutually corrupting acts with corporate and other wealthy interests. But the idea that big majorities of Americans strongly support the idee fixee interpretation of corporate power--that it's the single explanation for everything wrong with the country and the world--is just not supported by much evidence. Krugman offers a single data point: "A recent Democracy Corps survey of voter discontent found that the most commonly chosen phrase explaining what’s wrong with the country was 'Big businesses get whatever they want in Washington.'"
That's true, but in that survey, even though respondents had the chance to pick two explanations for America's "wrong track," something less than an overwhelming majority--40% to be exact--chose the anti-corporate narrative, seven percentage points ahead of the ancient conservative meme, "Moral and family values are being eroded." The same survey also raised alarms about the preoccupation of independent voters with "uncontrolled borders."
So while this is definitely a good year for populist rhetoric--and every single Democratic candidate is using it pretty heavily-- the idea that it's some sort of silver bullet that will produce the kind of majorities that will enable the next president to reject any sort of compromise and FDR his or her way to instant progressive victories is, well, a bit under-supported by the evidence. So, too, is the assertion that efforts to reach out beyond the Democratic base for support of progressive policies is (to use Krugman's phrase about Obama) "naive," as compared to the rival approach of seeking legislative majorities after labelling not only Republicans but half of Democrats in Washington as incorrigibly corrupt.
The ability to achieve "change" in the current political environment--and given our constitutional system, in almost any political environment--is hard to measure in advance. Obama's inclusiveness wouldn't suddenly change everything, but nor would Edwards' willingness to "fight." Democrats would be better advised to pick a candidate based on policies and on character than on the belief that any candidate can build a progressive record on nothing more than a different attitude.