John Edwards, can you please get real?
By now it’s been about three weeks since the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill was launched under the directorship of former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards, and we’ve seen one panel discussion and one well-attended speech by Edwards at the School of Law.
For those of us genuinely interested in universities tackling the problem of poverty it would be nice to be able to believe this is something more than a platform for the Boy Lawyer from Robbins’ 2008 presidential campaign. Excuse me if I see this whole enterprise as a cynical ploy.
Judging by the smattering of press accounts, the Edwards Center hasn’t gotten much further than floating some ideas to help poor people build savings accounts, raise the national minimum wage, reign in usurious payday lending operations and encourage poor people to bootstrap themselves into the middle class ‘— in other words, milquetoast Democratic boilerplate.
At the Center on Poverty’s March 22 panel discussion in Chapel Hill, which Edwards moderated, one of the participants was Loretta Smallwood-Johnson, a woman who spent 14 years working at minimum wage before attaining her own pizza franchise.
Smallwood-Johnson showed up as a character in Edwards’ Feb. 5 speech ‘— quoted here from a transcript posted on Edwards’ One America Committee website ‘— at the Democratic Party’s 100 Club in Manchester, NH. ‘“It was a million miles away from Robbins, but sitting with Loretta and the others, it was a very familiar place,’” he told the Democratic faithful. ‘“That belief in effort. And that hope that if you just keep going, try some more, things will get better ‘— isn’t this what America is all about?’”
Edwards said Smallwood-Johnson is the reason he decided to start the Center on Poverty.
As for me, I’ll take a Hugo Chavez-style shake-down-the-foreign-oil-companies-for-money-to-build-housing-for-the-poor populism over this pablum any day.
Here’s how he described the poverty center’s mandate to his audience in Manchester: ‘“We’ll work on extending health care so that nobody who works has to lose their insurance. We’ll work on launching a new race to the top that brings good jobs to forgotten corners. And we’ll work on providing a real education and a real chance for every child.’”
Conservative editorialists like John Hammer would probably call this ‘“liberal demagoguery’” if they even cared about Edwards. And the problem is they would be right. Edwards’ ideas are so vague he would never have to deliver on them if voters decided to put him in office. He can continue to chide the Republicans, but he’ll never have to harness the inevitable rage of rising expectations that comes from truly empowering the poor.
With John Edwards positioning himself as the champion of the poor, the Republicans will continue to be the party of questionable ideas (see: stimulating the economy by cutting taxes on the rich, who are the least likely to spend their newly disposable income) and the Democrats will continue to be the party of non-ideas. And as we all know, questionable ideas always win out over non-ideas.
So why is the Center on Poverty taking such a long time to get off the ground?
‘“The center is in the process of interviewing and hiring staff,’” Audrey Ward, a spokeswoman for the UNC School of Law, told me on April 6. ‘“Senator Edwards is still living in Washington. Hopefully this summer he’ll be moving here and he’ll be in the building.’”
He might still be living in Washington, but he’s also been spending a lot of time in places like Iowa and Wisconsin. He visited the two states from March 31 through April 2. Iowa, as most folks know, is where the second primary of the presidential campaign takes place. Wisconsin is a state where he received strong support before he conceded the primary to John Kerry.
A quick glance at recent news accounts makes it clear that the little poverty center in Chapel Hill is a central motif in the Edwards campaign story around the country ‘— even as he claims that he cares about fighting poverty, not running for president.
The web version of a story by Milwaukee CBS TV news affiliate WISC about Edwards’ visit states that the former senator tried to draw attention to his campaign against poverty and away from politics in speeches to state Democrats.
The story goes on to say: ‘“Edwards, who gave up his Senate seat to run for vice president, now serves as the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.’”
Sure, it’s kind of true ‘— except that it’s a part-time job that he hasn’t really started yet.
But the next sentence defies reality: ‘“He moved back to North Carolina with his family after he and running mate John Kerry lost the November election.’”
Uh, right. Except that he actually lives in Washington, and seems to spend as much time in places like Milwaukee, Madison and Des Moines as Chapel Hill.