Though the Democratic presidential primary campaign started only a few months ago, the candidates running have enough history and enough has happened in the race already to see the outlines of which candidates really represent what. The Beltway media will inevitably use raw fundraising numbers to endlessly pontificate on who is supposedly ahead and who is supposedly behind, but the real question voters will be asking themselves is who do these candidates really represent? Who represents the Money Party and who represents the People Party?
From William Jennings Bryan to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Robert F. Kennedy to Howard Dean, the Democratic Party has a rich history of iconic People Party presidential candidacies. Sadly, the media has tried to assign the legacy of some of these great icons - in particular, Robert Kennedy - to various candidates based only on charisma, not on the real substance of such icons. But an empirical analysis of the current candidates shows us exactly who represents what in the 2008 election.
In a race where Democratic candidates have already raised well over $70 million from tens of thousands of donors, finding out who is the People Party candidate is no easy task. You have to take a sober, objective look at three things: 1) What the candidates campaign themes are 2) Who each candidate surrounds him/herself with and 3) Who each candidate's enemies are (with this last one perhaps the most telling of all). Here is a look at Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards on these metrics.
To date, it's fair to say Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's campaigns have been about themselves. Whether that's their own fault, a deliberate strategy or a media distortion is not important - the fact is, neither of these candidates has made any headway in staking out themes any more coherent than fuzzy poll-tested rhetoric like "leadership" or "hope," textbook rhetoric of history's past false prophets and vapid cults of personality - and that's the good stuff. More often on major issues like Iraq, we get Clinton trying to justify her continued support for the war and Obama either singing the praises of his "mentors" like pro-war icons like Joe Lieberman or undercutting fellow Senate Democrats who are trying to take an aggressive posture against President Bush.
Edwards, by contrast, has been extremely disciplined in making economic class issues the central focus of his race (he has also taken a strong, consistent stand on the war first by apologizing for his initial vote, and then unequivocally supporting aggressive efforts to end it). Whether he was kicking off his campaign in hurricane-battered New Orleans or using his clout to help union drives, he has worked very hard to shine a light on the "two Americas" crisis that has, unfortunately, been aided and abetted by the Wall Street-Clinton administration pact which still dominates the Democratic Party establishment in Washington, D.C. Edwards among the three is the only one who has shown a commitment to taking stands on the core economic issues that Wall Street would rather no Democratic candidates even talk about. On "free" trade and the ability of K Street lobbyists to buy off politicians, for instance, he's been a populist champion since way back in 2004.
He has even called for the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement - an issue Bloomberg News shows that Hillary Clinton can't even talk about coherently, and an issue which, as I saw in my 2006 interview with him, Barack Obama desperately tries to dance around (not surprising, considering his top policy aide was the top policy aide to NAFTA proponent Bob Rubin).
It's no secret that Clinton and Obama have opted to surround themselves with Wall Street and Washington insiders, with something of a competition going on between the two camps over how much corporate backing they can generate. As Businessweek notes, both candidates are using Wall Street CEOs to "refine" their economic platforms, with the Politico noting that both also are relying heavily on the corporate-backed Hamilton Project to guide them.
Clinton has clearly been the most aggressive in working the Beltway lobbyist crowd. Obama has been much better, making hay out of a pledge to not take lobbyist or PAC money. But, then, as the Hill Newspaper reports, Obama also has constructed his own K Street Project of sorts, circumventing the spirit of the no-lobbyist-money pledge he campaigns on.
Edwards, like every candidate in our current pay-to-play system, is no saint - there's little doubt he's raised Wall Street cash, but there's also little doubt that he's surrounded himself with people who have focused on working class issues. His campaign, for instance, is run by former Rep. David Bonior (D-MI), one of the great economic populists of the last two decades. Similarly, he has brought on high-level people from populist organizations like Demos and the Working Families Party.
Figuring out who DOESN'T like a candidate is probably the best way to figure out what that candidate is really all about, and candidates who don't have ideological enemies are suspect, to say the least. If you don't have enemies, you aren't doing anything.
Let's stipulate up front that every Democratic candidate has Republican opponents for sheer partisan reasons, and that to judge the candidates based on the specific levels of hate directed at them by Republican partisans is pointless (For instance, Clinton perhaps is more intensely despised by the right, but only because of the virulent, issue-free anti-Clintonism of the 1990s - not for any position on any issue that she holds in contrast to other Democratic candidates).
So who are the candidates' ideological opponents? Clinton used to be hated by the health industry - that is, until she started apologizing for ever pushing universal health care and then became the U.S. Senate's number 2 recipient of health industry cash. Meanwhile, one of Clinton's repetitive talking points is how she's forged close friendships with fringe-right-wing Republicans in the Senate, and she's been a helpful ally to pro-war neoconservatives on an array of Pentagon budget and Iraq War issues. Frankly, other than Republican partisans, Clinton doesn't seem to have many ideological enemies.
Same thing for Obama, and not just because he has a magnetic personality. Though he was a community organizer, Obama's Senate M.O. has been to avoid confrontation at all costs - and in my interview with him, he insinuated that such a posture is a deliberate goal.
Edwards, by contrast, has real ideological enemies - not a surprise considering that before entering politics, his entire career was based on challenging power. Right-wingers can belittle trial lawyers, but at their core, trial lawyers challenge entrenched and often corrupt power for a living - and that has created real adversaries for Edwards.
As Inc. Magazine reported, corporate lobbyists had a rare public temper tantrum when Edwards was put on the Democratic ticket in 2004. While Clinton and Obama fire up the cash vacuum on K Street, Edwards is persona non grata there, thanks to his refusal to take lobbyist or PAC money, his promise to crack down in a serious way on lobbyists if elected, his populist economic stances, and his unwillingness to kiss the corporate ring. "Edwards has little discernible support downtown," the Hill wrote, referring to K Street. "And one source close to the Edwards campaign claimed that it is not working to change that."
If you are a voter looking for a candidate who is willing to confront the biggest issues facing America right now - Iraq, economic class, the middle class squeeze and skyrocketing inequality - then there really is no contest in the Democratic presidential primary right now: John Edwards is your candidate.
Some may say that because Edwards "only" raised a whopping $14 million in contrast with Clinton and Obama's $25 million each, it means he may not be viable. I tend to look at it the other way: The fact that a guy who spent most of his life challenging economic power can raise $14 million without taking money from lobbyists or PACs is unfathomable - arguably more of a feat than the sheer amounts that Clinton and Obama hauled in.
This isn't to say that Clinton or Obama are bad candidates. Obviously, they are way better than the Republican field, and Obama in particular has potential to grow into more of a leader - if he has the spine to shun the ruling-class sensibilities of the people he's surrounded himself with (as an aside - I sincerely hope this happens, though am not optimistic, considering Obama's top strategist is bragging to reporters that he is crafting a campaign aimed at shunning all ideology and issue-based stands in order to present a pure personality story).
But right now, while there is a contest among Beltway insiders about which candidate to leech onto in hopes of an administration job or a good contacts for the next corporate lobbying contract, there is simply no contest when it comes to the issues that really matter to ordinary people. Where Hillary Clinton has embraced her position as the establishment candidate and where Barack Obama told me "I don't consider myself the leader of a movement," Edwards is openly trying to use his candidacy to lead a real substance-based movement.
Make no mistake, I don't agree with Edwards on every issue. He is far from perfect. But then so is every candidate who runs for office. We live, after all, in a wholly imperfect political system - one where "democracy" has become a sad punchline rather than a governing ethos. But within that system, whether you believe he's acting out of pure positioning or genuine, authentic conviction (I happen to firmly believe it is the latter), Edwards has undeniably become the People Party candidate. He is the one who represents the clearest chance for change - real change for the entire country on issues that matter, rather than just a change of parking spots for the circle of former Clinton adminstration officials, lobbyists and well-heeled professional political hacks who control the Democratic Party in Washington, D.C.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I have been hesitant to take sides in the presidential race because it is important for us to use the campaign to see where the candidates are on the issues. Up until now, I haven't been for any of them, because I was still studying them (I realize for some knee-jerk Partisan Warriors, that's impossible to understand or fathom). A few wild-eyed conspiracy theorists have tried to claim in the past that I work for one or another of these candidates. I wrote this response to that charge earlier, swatting that deliberate untruth down. I don't work for any of the candidates, and those who say I do are promoting a disgusting and ugly lie in an effort to slander my credibility. Just because you may be a blind, automaton-like zealot of one or another candidate, doesn't mean that people who disagree with you are on the payroll of your candidate's opponent.
Follow David Sirota on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidsirota