John Ed­wards wins!

Pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls on both sides riff on the mes­sage of the 2008 can­di­date.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - ED­WARDS FROM B1 jim.tanker­s­ley@wash­post.com Jim Tanker­s­ley, who writes about eco­nomic pol­icy for The Wash­ing­ton Post, cov­ered John Ed­wards’s last pres­i­den­tial race for the Chicago Tri­bune.

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.

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 so­called 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.

STEVE BRODNER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

LUCY NI­CHOL­SON /REUTERS

In his 2004 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Demo­crat John Ed­wards em­pha­sized the idea of “two Amer­i­cas,” di­vided along class lines.

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