07/31/2007 12:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Edwards, Obama & Labor: Will the Populist Moment Become A Long-Term Movement?

In the last two weeks, something profound started happening out on the 2008 campaign trail -- a momentum has started building like I haven't seen in my lifetime. Two out of the top three best-polling Democratic candidates are starting to engage in a battle for the populist mantle. How this battle plays out and how organized labor asserts itself in the next few months could very well set the stage for -- or kill in its infancy -- the rise of a broader populist movement in America.

The Edwards Factor

For the last year or so, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards has laid claim to a brand of bare-knuckled economic populism the Democratic Party hasn't seen in a major candidate for president since at least Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, and more likely Dick Gephardt's out-of-nowhere Iowa primary victory in 1988 (Clinton may have governed as a center-right corporate appeaser, but for those who buy the Washington media's historical revisionism of Clinton originally RUNNING as an anti-populist technocrat, please see here and here). If all politicians are at some level opportunists and weathervanes, then we have to look at who they see their opportunities with and which way they perceive the wind blowing to get a sense of who they would rely on and how they would govern in the offices they seek.

Edwards, as In These Times' latest cover story shows, clearly sees his opportunity with the labor movement and more specifically with a message attacking economic inequality, abuses of corporate power and rampant bipartisan corruption in Washington. After the 2006 elections where populists all over America were victorious, he sees the political advantages of this posture. And fortunately for Edwards, a populist message is 100 percent consistent with his previous career challenging Big Money interests as a trial attorney.

Now, in the last two weeks, Edwards has ratcheted up his People Party vs. Money Party campaign to a place that truly suggests his candidacy could be transformative. He's moved away from merely the traditional checklisting of positions that we've gotten used to from candidates to start articulating a broader critique of the fundamental problem facing America in a way that few -- if any -- politicians really ever articulate. As an example, take a look at these two statements from him at last week's debate. Though they received almost no coverage from a power-worshiping Washington media, it is astounding that a presidential candidate has the guts to say this:

"Do you believe that compromise, triangulation will bring about big change? I don't. I think the people who are powerful in Washington -- big insurance companies, big drug companies, big oil companies -- they are not going to negotiate. They are not going to give away their power. The only way that they are going to give away their power is if we take it away from them ... We can't trade our insiders for their insiders. That doesn't work. What we need is somebody who will take these people on, these big banks, these mortgage companies, big insurance companies, big drug companies. That's the only way we're going to bring about change."

Edwards has continued this drumbeat this week, telling a Nashua audience that Big Money interests now "run this country" and that "I think you've got to take them on and beat them, I don't think you can sit at a table and negotiate with them." And he has poignantly lashed out at the media, saying that their refusal to cover this root message of his campaign is an attempt to "talk about silly frivolous nothing stuff so that America won't pay attention" to the very real economic challenges we face -- challenges that many of the media's parent companies and corporate advertisers are making ever harder to overcome.

Obama's Encouraging Populist Streak

Now, here comes Barack Obama (D). About a week and a half ago, the Washington Post reported that "Obama's campaign is doing some retooling: He is focusing more on the economy." This story appeared on the same day the New York Times quoted Obama not-so-subtly lashing out at the Rubin wing of the Democratic Party, specifically indicting free traders for selling out American workers. And just yesterday, Obama ratcheted it up again, decrying a "second Gilded Age" and parroting Edwards almost word-for-word:

"The reason that we're not getting things done is not because we don't have good plans or good policy prescriptions. The reason is because it's not our agenda that's being moved forward in Washington -- it's the agenda of the oil companies, the insurance companies, the drug companies, the special interests who dominate on a day-to-day basis in terms of legislative activity."

This is a very different and much better Obama than the one I interviewed back in 2005 for a major profile for The Nation magazine. Back then, he presented a more deferential, Third Way-ish attitude -- a non-confrontational belief that if you just bring all powerful interests to the negotiating table, you can thread a needle to solve major economic problems in a way that makes everyone happy. Fortunately, what he's saying now is the opposite: That power must be confronted, and that many of these issues are binary. There are those who want to preserve the status quo, and you have to force them to change.

A Battle for the Populist Mantle

For a while now, I've told reporters, political operatives and friends that I talk politics with that the most interesting fault line in the Democratic presidential primary will be between Edwards and Obama. The former has created a gravitational pull in the race to become the change candidate juxtaposed against the Establishment candidacy of Hillary Clinton and her Washington machine. Back in December, he gave a pointed speech in New Hampshire saying "identifying the problem and talking about hope is waiting for tomorrow" -- a clear dig at Obama's then-nebulous platitudes. A few months later, Obama tried to dismiss Edwards with right-wing-ish Beltway media memes, at one point saying Iowa voters would look at Edwards merely as "good-looking" or "cute."

But now, Obama is taking Edwards more seriously, trying to match -- if not one-up -- Edwards in the race for the populist mantle. It really doesn't matter whether you think Obama's moves are principled or whether you think he is just politically calculating and can't really be a populist because his campaign is overrun with Wall Street cash and Washington insiders. The point here is that there is clearly a competition going on -- and that's a good thing not just for the candidates in question, but for a political debate sorely lacking in any real discussion of the major economic forces that shape -- and hurt -- America.

How Organized Labor Can -- Or Cannot -- Capitalize for the Long Haul

This is where organized labor comes in. The New York Times reports today that labor is thrilled with the dynamic taking shape, as it should be. Yet the Times further notes that labor as a whole and many individual labor unions are unlikely to endorse any candidate before the primary. Why? The old "winnability" argument.

The article details how labor leaders are worried about endorsing a candidate who doesn't end up winning the nomination. For instance, my friend Steve Rosenthal accurately tells the Times that while "there's a pretty strong sentiment across the labor movement for Edwards" nonetheless "some unions are a little leery of endorsing him without more evidence that he can win."

This fear of endorsing someone who doesn't win is rooted in the strange conventional wisdom among labor leaders that the unions who endorsed Howard Dean in the 2004 Democratic primaries made a horrifically tragic error that somehow hurt the labor movement. There is no evidence to support this conventional wisdom, of course. The eventual nominee, John Kerry, wasn't any less or more pro-labor because he was mad at unions for endorsing Dean (sure, Kerry could have been smarter and run more frontally against corporate-written trade deals in places like Ohio, but Kerry had long been a free trader before, so it's hard to claim that his refusal to take that tact had anything to do with unions pre-primary endorsements). But the Beltway memes are hard to break -- and one of the oldest, most silly Beltway narratives is the one that says endorsing a candidate who loses a primary is automatically a death blow.

The truth is that, like many other key groups in the Democratic coalition, labor's real leverage exists ONLY in the primary because in a general election. Why? Because when Democratic candidates inevitably tack to the free-trading, job-outsourcing, Tom Friedman-worshiping corporate middle in the general election, labor can't play real hardball and pushback with any sort of serious threat of withholding resources because it rightfully doesn't want to help usher in an ardently anti-worker Republican president. Put another way, in a general, labor needs the Democratic candidate because it has nowhere else to go - and the Democratic candidate knows that, and inevitably takes liberties because of it.

In the primary, by contrast, the candidates are desperate for labor's support, because it could win them the nomination. That desperation gives labor huge leverage by allowing it to use its endorsement as the prize that keeps candidates trying to one-up each other in their advocacy of the economic populism at the core of labor's agenda. There may even be value in taking a risk in endorsing someone who may lose - it says to every candidate running for office that labor is so serious about its agenda, that it is willing to risk taking stands with candidates who take risks standing with labor - even if those candidates may not win. And, as mentioned, there is little - if any - consequences in the general election, especially when you consider many politicians who ride labor's support to office turn right around and smack unions in the face (ie. Bill Clinton driving NAFTA "over the dead body of labor," as one of his Wall Street financial backers bragged).

Thus, the downside of labor's current attitude towards its presidential endorsement is destructive in two distinct ways.

First and foremost, the prioritization of backing the winner over almost everything else in endorsement considerations is terribly short-term in its thinking. If every election is a "teachable moment" in the broader political system, then the goal here should be to use 2008's teachable moment to create a multi-election-cycle dynamic where candidates learn that they should always aggressively advocate for labor's agenda. To do that, there has to be a risk/reward system - that is, candidates have to know that they will be rewarded primarily for their advocacy, not just for their ability to win the primary - an ability that often comes by doing things that run counter to labor's agenda (like, say, raising huge dollars from Wall Street interests that want free trade deals).

I'm not saying labor shouldn't CONSIDER whether a candidate can win. Any organization should want to back someone who has a solid shot at winning - like, by the way, Dean did (and, in fact, a solid realpolitik argument can be made that unions should want to back an underdog who NEEDS labor's endorsement to win and thus owes the victory to the labor movement, rather than someone who might win without labor, and thus feels they owe labor nothing). But what I am saying is that labor leaders very clear prioritization of "winnability" over most everything else undermines the necessary risk/reward system that would create a multi-election-cycle pro-labor situation.

Second, labor leaders' move to effectively take primary endorsements off the table actually suppresses the motivation for competitions like the one we are seeing Edwards and Obama engage in because they remove the possibility of a high-value, institutional reward. Why, for instance, should candidates continue making labor's agenda central to their campaign if labor leaders have already said there is no potential for endorsement at the end of the rainbow? Sure, some candidates like Edwards simply believe in the agenda and aren't doing it only for the endorsement. But taking away the incentive is counterproductive, especially when the field includes candidates like Obama and Clinton who have other well-financed, competing interests pulling them in decidedly different directions.

Labor's decision to withhold its endorsement to this point has been very smart. Letting the candidates prove themselves in pursuit of, for instance, an AFL-CIO endorsement that could be decisive to a primary victory has fueled the Obama-Edwards competition, which has impacted the overall presidential debate, which has impacted the broader national political conversation.

But that shrewd decision and the potential for labor to more permanently instill populist economics into Democratic presidential politics will be lost if labor goes down the path it now seems to be headed.

Taking one of labor's most powerful political tools -- the endorsement and all that comes with it - off the table in the primary arena where it has the most leverage and giving fake Washington pundit narratives about "winnability" equal if not more significance than rewarding candidates who champion labor's substantive agenda is more than silly -- it is a disservice to a labor movement that is supposed to not be looking at just one election cycle or just playing a Washington game, but is supposed to be looking at the long-term for a national movement.

NOTE: For shorthand, the discussion of labor endorsements refers to labor as a monolith, which it most certainly is not. Labor suffers from a significant lack of solidarity these days (sad, considering solidarity is the core principle of unions), and so it is true - labor leaders do not have 100 percent control over their unions' endorsements, and their comments to the Times about their members being divided is inevitably true. However, these same leaders do have a large amount of control and strategic input about endorsements, which is what this post is really addressing.

Originally posted at Working Assets