Friday, November 11, 2005

John Edwards: a portrait in authenticity

The Bright and the Dull.

"Cornbread and Roses" -The Nation

In February Edwards surprised them all, announcing a campaign to "eradicate poverty in America." With a $40,000 annual salary paid by private funds, Edwards became the first director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC, Chapel Hill's law school, largely a think tank designed to bring antipoverty scholars, activists, journalists and politicians together to cook up innovative ways to tackle economic and racial inequities.Edwards is also putting some of his ideas into action, including the College for Everyone program he promised in 2004. In low-income Greene County Edwards this summer announced a pilot program to pay for the first year of college for local high school graduates willing to work at least ten hours a week.

Since launching the center, Edwards has returned to perpetual motion, taking his antipoverty crusade to more than thirty states. Between visits to shelters and job-training centers and delivering his new stump speech, full of ringing challenges to view poverty as "the great moral cause of our time," Edwards has raised more than $4 million for Democratic legislative candidates in mostly red states, trying, as he says, "to build the party back from the ground up." He's teaming with unlikely partners on the left--including local AFL-CIO, ACORN and NAACP chapters--in campaigns to raise the minimum wage in Ohio, Arizona and Michigan. He's praising Big Labor's historic role in "lifting millions of Americans out of poverty." And he's floating serious--and surprisingly liberal--proposals to put his high-flown rhetoric into action. He's touting a controversial "cultural integration" plan to give low-income families housing vouchers to move into better neighborhoods. He's calling for expansions to Bill Clinton's earned-income tax credits, for concerted crackdowns on predatory lenders, and for "work bonds" to help low-income workers build savings and assets. He wants not only to repeal Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent but also to raise capital-gains taxes for those on the top rungs. After Hurricane Katrina he spoke pointedly about how "the face of poverty in America is the face of color" and promoted an ambitious Gulf Coast recovery program modeled on FDR's Works Progress Administration--a touchstone for the kind of big-government liberalism that the old Edwards (like most Democratic leaders today) wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole.