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Edwards brings fighting words

Populist message stirs old passions in a different era

Email|Print| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / January 1, 2008

KNOXVILLE, Iowa - John Edwards tells Iowans that he learned all he needs to know about effecting political change when his father taught him to "never walk away from a fight." In the stemwinder of a speech he began delivering last week, Edwards uses a version of the word fight dozens of times - along with a few struggles and a battle or two - in a depiction of America filled with violent imagery.

"This corporate greed is killing the middle class, killing American jobs, and it is stealing your children's future," Edwards told crowds in towns across the state.

Edwards's rhetoric - and the passionate response it is engendering from his loyalists in the days before the caucus - might be the most fervid by a major presidential candidate in many decades, according to historians.

"What's surprising is that he has made the calculated decision to return to this unvarnished populist message that's unfiltered, unrestrained, and recalls the legacy of earlier Democratic campaigns," said Stephen M. Gillon, a University of Oklahoma historian. "The question is whether the world has changed so much in the past 40 years that the language can still work."

With few programmatic differences among the Democratic candidates, the top three are distinguished from one another largely by their readings of the national condition. Senator Hillary Clinton of New York has emerged as the field's realist, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois as its idealist, and former senator Edwards of North Carolina as its cynic, beseeching Americans to realize they are victims of a corporate conspiracy.

"We have an epic fight in front of us against these entrenched, moneyed interests," Edwards said.

Edwards describes American history as a sequence of rounds in that fight, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt's challenges to large trusts from the Gilded Age. According to historians, Edwards's message echoes another of that era's famed crusaders, three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan.

"He's channeling the legacy of economic populism from Andrew Jackson onward," said Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University professor and author of a Bryan biography.

While many recent candidates have dabbled in similar themes - Al Gore's 2000 convention speech defended the "people against the powerful" - no modern Democrat has focused as relentlessly on confrontation as Edwards.

"It's a fairly ancient tradition," said Ted Widmer, a historian at Brown University and former speechwriter for Bill Clinton. "But after FDR, we had a pretty long time without it. It's not a feature of campaigns in the '50s and '60s."

Edwards, who in his first presidential campaign four years ago gave a speech entitled "In Defense of Optimism," now offers a bleaker picture. He brings up issues like healthcare and global warming merely to claim that "corporate greed" stands in the way of progress. He mentions foreign policy only once, to note that the United States has "corporate mercenaries" in Iraq.

Like many populists, Edwards focuses more on the struggle than specific results. He offers no indication what things would look like after he has won the fight or even if it is possible to imagine its end.

"Populism is much better suited to identifying problems than providing solutions," said Gillon. "It's not pragmatic, it doesn't lay out an agenda. It's emotional, not intellectual. It's a very successful campaign strategy. It's much more difficult as a governing strategy."

At various points, Edwards identifies his opponents as pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, energy companies, power companies, electrical companies, and their corporate lobbyists - expressing outrage at an unnamed healthcare CEO who earns "hundreds of millions of dollars."

"How much money do these people need?" asked Edwards, who earlier this year reported assets of $29.5 million.

Edwards credits corporations with "using their money, their power and influence, and they have an iron-fisted grip on your democracy," suggesting that the system is engineered to prevent any change - a catchphrase common to Obama and Clinton.

Regardless of the issue or opponent, Edwards has the same policy prescription: fight. The former trial lawyer's reading of his own biography is formed by conflict, a natural career arc from the schoolyard to the courtroom, and suggests that as president he would remain a scrapper.

"You've got to send somebody into the arena who's ready for the fight," said Edwards, pointing to his stomach to say he has the fight "in here" - an implied contrast with Obama, whom he portrays as too "analytical" to bring about change.

Obama has begun openly addressing Edwards's suggestion that he is, in Obama's words, "not angry or confrontational enough." Obama's strategist David Axelrod, a former Edwards adviser, mocks Edwards as a "born-again populist" with a "storm-the-Bastille" mentality.

Edwards, however, has risen in the polls in recent days, suggesting that his message is finding an audience. Iowa, with its large rural expanses and declining industrial base, is a particularly fertile territory for populist appeals, historians say. Yet they note that the forces that undergirded populist rhetoric in the past - particularly organized labor, which backed Franklin Roosevelt against business interests - are diminishing in American politics.

"When you're speaking this kind of populist language you need to have a good definition of who the people are backing you up," said Kazin. "It may work in Iowa, but I don't think this way of talking would make it in New Jersey or California."

Unlike Obama, who attracts large numbers of undecided voters, Edwards draws crowds who appear to be sold on his candidacy and respond to his message with zeal. But while populist rhetoric has a clear appeal in the partisan atmosphere of a primary campaign, its effectiveness has often been short-lived.

"While Americans love the language of populism, they sometimes fear its consequences," said Gillon. "It has a downside, a dark side. Populism can oversimplify problems, it can scapegoat enemies, it can raise expectations, and it can leave behind a legacy of bitterness."

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