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Last week, John Edwards fired a broadside against corporate America and, more significantly, "corporate Democrats," the likes of which hasn't been heard from a viable candidate with national appeal in decades.
Edwards is en fuego right now, and if he keeps up the heat, his candidacy will either be widely embraced by the emerging progressive movement or utterly annihilated by an entrenched establishment that fears few things more than a telegenic populist with enough money to mount a credible campaign.
"It's time to end the game," Edwards told a crowd in Hanover, New Hampshire. "It's time to tell the big corporations and the lobbyists who have been running things for too long that their time is over." He exhorted Washington law-makers to "look the lobbyists in the eye and just say no."
Real change starts with being honest -- the system in Washington is rigged and our government is broken. It's rigged by greedy corporate powers to protect corporate profits. It's rigged by the very wealthy to ensure they become even wealthier. At the end of the day, it's rigged by all those who benefit from the established order of things. For them, more of the same means more money and more power. They'll do anything they can to keep things just the way they are -- not for the country, but for themselves.
[The system is] controlled by big corporations, the lobbyists they hire to protect their bottom line and the politicians who curry their favor and carry their water. And it's perpetuated by a media that too often fawns over the establishment, but fails to seriously cover the challenges we face or the solutions being proposed. This is the game of American politics and in this game, the interests of regular Americans don't stand a chance.
It's a structural argument, and Edwards didn't pull punches in calling out his fellow Democrats, saying: "We cannot replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats, just swapping the Washington insiders of one party for the Washington insiders of the other." The rhetoric was a clear signal that Edwards is going to beat the drums of reform as a contrast to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the primaries.
About a third of the speech focused on the trade deals that Bill Clinton championed, and his argument that those "wedded to the past" can't provide the answers was a barely-veiled rebuke of the Clintonian arm of the party, and the media's chosen "front-runner" for the nomination.
If Democrats are engaged in an existential struggle between the party's establishment and its grassroots, Edwards is obviously betting that the grassroots' passion and energy will trump the Machine Democrats message' apparatus -- this was a speech that was not written by the usual coterie of Beltway consultants.
The most striking aspect of Edwards' speech was his implicit argument that class still exists. For years, both parties have obscured the divisions that are so prominent in modern American society, painting a picture of a country in which we're all part of an entrepreneurial class with more or less similar interests -- a key ingredient in the false "center" to which politicians and Beltway pundits kow-tow. "Let me tell you one thing I have learned from my experience," Edwards said last week. "You cannot deal with them on their terms. You cannot play by their rules, sit at their table, or give them a seat at yours. They will not give up their power -- you have to take it from them."
It was an explicit rebuke of Obama's "new politics" -- Obama recently told the Washington Post that "the insurance and drug companies can have a seat at the table in our health-care debate; they just can't buy all the chairs." Obama's approach to "cleaning up Washington" is not bad, but ultimately tinkers around the edges of a corrupted legislative system.
Edwards is not so conciliatory on the subject. "For more than 20 years, Democrats have talked about universal health care," he said. "And for more than 20 years, we've gotten nowhere, because lobbyists for the big insurance companies, drug companies and HMOs spent millions to block real reform."
Contrast that naked confrontation of corporate power with the tepid appeals to working Americans that were a trademark of John Kerry's 2004 campaign. In announcing his candidacy, Kerry offered a bit of demagoguery about CEOs -- he segued from bashing Cheney and Halliburton --and boldly promised to end tax breaks "that help companies move American jobs overseas." Also in his plan for corporate accountability: "No more contracts for companies, no matter how well-connected they are, until they decide to do what's right."
Hillary Clinton's economic proposals track with the thinking popular among the ostensible "progressives" at the DLC and the Third Way -- policies that give Americans the "opportunity" to save for retirement, a decidedly centrist approach to spiraling college costs and other familiar policies from the 1990s. She's not a fair trader nor a free trader, she says -- she's for "smart trade," "pro-American" trade.
Edward's speech about the economy isn't the only time that he's strayed from the bounds of "respectable" discourse in Washington. In May, he said that the "war on terror" was a political "bumper sticker" that the administration used to "justify everything [Bush] does: the ongoing war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, spying on Americans, torture."
Edwards isn't the only candidate in the race making such bold statements, of course. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has long spoken of economic issues in the kinds of terms Edwards used last week. But John Edwards was the vice presidential nominee on a presidential ticket that won 59 million votes and he's raised $23 million in the current cycle (20 times what Kucinich has raised), and that means that corporate media is forced to cover him. So far, they've mocked him, written stories about his haircuts, pushed shadowy innuendo about his personal business dealings and suggested his focus on poverty is disingenuous or hypocritical, but they simply can't write him off as a member of the fringe. Unlike Kucinich, they can't ignore him.
John Edwards is becoming a very different kind of candidate, and his growing message of empowerment and attack on the corporate class may prove to be the most interesting story of campaign 2008.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.