John Edwards ended his presidential hopes seven years ago. Then the former senator and vice-presidential nominee admitted fathering a child in the midst of a romantic affair. His wife left him and soon died of cancer. Federal prosecutors put him on trial for alleged campaign finance violations; a jury acquitted him. Today Edwards is out of politics, practicing law. Even with a thin field behind Hillary Clinton, no one in the Democratic Party is urging him to run for president again.
Still, he’s won.
John Edwards will never be president, but everyone running for the job today is cribbing from his campaign.
Edwards famously preached that the nation had become divided along class lines. As he said in his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention: “We still live in a country where there are two different Americas. One for all of those people who have lived the American dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans, everybody else who struggles to make ends meet every single day. It doesn’t have to be that way.” When he ran again in 2008, he doubled down on that message.
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At the time, Republicans mocked him. “Angry talk and class-warfare rhetoric and economic isolationism won’t get anybody hired,” President George W. Bush said in 2004. Now almost every major GOP presidential candidate describes the economy in bifurcated terms. Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) quote “two Americas” explicitly in their stump speeches.
Democrats haven’t just paid homage to Edwards’s rhetoric. They have also adopted his platform. In 2008, Edwards ran on cutting carbon emissions aggressively to fight global warming and raising the minimum wage to what, in today’s dollars, would be about $10.50 per hour. Now Democratic presidential candidates call for even more aggressive climate policies, and President Obama, who beat Edwards in the primaries, wants a $10.10 minimum wage;; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), running for the Democratic nomination, promotes a $15 minimum.
Sanders also seeks to make Medicare available to anyone who wants to buy into it, something Edwards pushed in his last campaign. Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, advocates making college “as debt-free as possible.” Guess who promised free college for all qualified students, way back in 2008?
Edwards didn’t invent any of those ideas — in many cases, he was fairly new to them himself. He barely touched climate change while representing North Carolina in the Senate, and his first presidential campaign, in 2004, featured a more centrist economic plan with a smaller increase in the minimum wage. The phrase “two Americas,” in political context, dates back at least to Martin Luther King Jr.
The millworker’s son turned senator wasn’t even the first to highlight the dividing fortunes of the many and the few in the U.S. economy. Mario Cuomo famously told the Democratic National Convention in 1984 that “this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’ ” Jesse Jackson decried the “stagnation in the living standards of most U.S. households” in 1988. And Ralph Nader bemoaned the rise of the 1 percent in the 2000 campaign. In the years since those critiques, the rebuttal to them — that inequality is not a major threat to America — has eroded.
Edwards’s big contribution was a combination of marketing and timing. He packed the frustrations of a stalled-out middle class into one of the most memorable political tag lines in decades — at a time when economic trends were feeding those frustrations. Still, he was a sliver too early: The financial crisis that blew up after he left the race gave rise to Occupy activism, tea party populism and a national political mood that is forcing every 2016 contender to be a class warrior to some degree. Median income fell during the recession and the early years of recovery, and today, adjusting for inflation, it’s no higher than it was in 1989.
“There is now a much more unified story about the economy, particularly in the Democratic Party,” says Heather McGhee, an architect of Edwards’s 2008 campaign platform who is now president of Demos, a progressive public policy organization. “That is a cross-partisan, nonideological belief — that America’s children are going to have tougher lives than we had, and that the wealthy and powerful have stacked the deck against everyone else.”
Don’t take that just from McGhee. Take it from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who told “60 Minutes” earlier this year that “the so-called 1 percent that the president is always talking about have done quite well” under Obama while middle- and lower-income Americans are worse off.
Take it from any number of GOP presidential contenders. Like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who, in his first major economic speech, in Detroit, said that “the opportunity gap is the defining issue of our time,” and “the American dream has become a mirage for far too many,” and many Americans “see only a small portion of the population riding the economy’s up escalator.”
Or take it from Paul, who regularly invokes “two Americas” in writings and speeches about how differently the criminal justice system treats whites and blacks. Take it especially from Cruz, who in a March speech declared: “We’ve seen over the past number of years two Americas emerge. At the very top, top 1 percent today, with the largest federal government we’ve ever had, the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our income [than they have] since 1928.” Or from Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who has fretted that America “is not a land of opportunity for all.”
Republicans have not, by any stretch, embraced Edwards’s prescriptions for improving the lives of second-class Americans;; so far, they have mostly followed their new rhetoric with classic conservative calls for lower taxes, less regulation and smaller government, promising that those changes would lift workers across the board. Liberals openly doubt their sincerity.
Democrats, in contrast, have shifted solidly toward the Edwards ’08 platform, particularly after Obama’s 2012 reelection. If her early campaign speeches are any indication, Clinton will almost certainly run with an economic plan that is as liberal and populist as Edwards’s was, and quite possibly more so.
Former Edwards aides — almost none of whom would speak on the record for this story — marvel at those trends. Some of them regret how Edwards stepped on his own message at times in the 2008 campaign with conspicuous displays of wealth, like building a mansion outside Raleigh;; many lament how he self-destructed even as his message was catching on.
Almost all of them have noticed how the political world has bent toward their agenda in recent years. “The campaign made a choice early on in [the 2008 cycle] that it was going to go for bold and transformational policy,” McGhee recalls. It was “a deliberate attempt to move the party, and the other two leading candidates, in a more progressive policy direction. We were very cognizant of the policy impact we could have, even if we were the underdog.”
Edwards himself declined repeated interview requests for this story. But I once spent a long flight talking to him, as we traveled between campaign stops in Pennsylvania and Iowa. It was Labor Day in 2007. He had just held a rally in Pittsburgh to accept the endorsements of the steelworkers and mine workers unions. It was a small plane, with just a pilot, the candidate, a spokesman (who now works in the Obama White House press shop) and me.
Edwards talked about the economy and about the homework he’d done after the 2004 campaign. He spent a lot of time thinking about what he’d do as president, he said. He thought Clinton had done the same. He wasn’t sure Obama had, at least not yet. But John Edwards had put in the time. He had passed long hours at his wife’s hospital bedside, while cancer drugs knocked her out cold, planning how he would change the country.
Jim Tankersley, who covers economic policy for The Washington Post, followed John Edwards’s last presidential race for the Chicago Tribune.