COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — The back, right corner of the Kirn Middle School auditorium erupted. After hours of voting, haggling, and a recount, John Edwards had been declared the winner of the 9th precinct caucus in Pottawattamie County. He edged out Clinton here as he edged her out statewide, finishing in a better-than-expected second place.
The horse he rode to his current success, however — bomb-throwing class warfare — cannot carry him to the White House. Some political analysts and many Iowa voters believe Edwards, being a Southern white male, is the most electable of the top three Democrats. In truth, he would be the Democrat most likely to lose.
Edwards’s second-place finish in Iowa proves that there are at least two Americas. There’s the one where people dislike the rich, resent successful businessmen, and want to redistribute wealth; and then there’s the majority of the country, where we each believe we can get rich, be successful, and earn our own wealth.
When considering the 2008 elections, it’s important to remember a third America — the big-money donors and their lobbyists who may not mind Edwards’ big-government policies, but certainly don’t appreciate his use of them as a whipping boy.
Last night suggests that class warfare — a specific brand of populism — works very well on a limited scale. It can carry you to second-place in a three-way Democratic caucus, which is no small feat.
Throughout the last month, when I would interview Iowa Democratic voters almost all of them had a fairly positive opinion of Edwards. But those for whom he was the first choice pointed to his rhetoric and his anti-big business message as the thing that set him apart.
They might like Hillary’s plans, but, as one woman put it at an Edwards rally in Des Moines, “she’s with the lobbyists.” “He’s the only one who will take on the big companies,” said another Edwards loyalist.
Indeed, Edwards promises to take no prisoners. He derides Hillary and Obama’s plans for working with big business, saying, “Some people argue that we’re going to sit at a table with these people and they’re going to voluntarily give their power away. I think it is a complete fantasy; it will never happen.”
THIS POSTURE WORKS with many Democratic voters and gets rowdy applause at Edwards’s rallies. It has two serious flaws, though.
First, it is simply incorrect. President Hillary really would be able to sit down with Pfizer, Blue Cross, and Microsoft to hammer out an agreement for socialized health care, and President Obama really could sit down with Chevron, DuPont, and GE and come up with federal carbon dioxide constraints.
Second, outright refusal to sit down with these guys makes fundraising — and winning — tough. At a caucus eve Hillary Clinton rally in Des Moines, one Hillary supporter saw this clearly: “Edwards can’t win because he is too set on battling the big corporations,” this liberal Democrat said. “You can’t beat them.”
This somewhat surprising and depressing sentiment is the same idea Hillary is conveying when she mocks Edwards’s belief that “the way to bring about change is to demand it.” It’s sad, but true: with few exceptions, significant policy changes don’t happen in Washington unless somebody with influence stands to get rich from the new policy.
Similarly, a guy (or a gal) can’t get elected president without the backing of really rich people. Edwards will have the trial lawyers, sure, but his non-stop anti-business rhetoric will make it very tough for industry chiefs to get behind him, even if his policies don’t differ too much from Hillary and Barack, who are swimming in PAC money.
Class warfare rhetoric doesn’t just turn off the enemy class, but also those who plan or hope someday to join that class. Most Americans don’t resent the rich, in part because most of us believe we could someday be rich.
Polls consistently show that Americans hate the death tax more than any other tax, despite the constant drumbeat from the media that only the “wealthiest heirs” will pay it.
IN AMERICA’S political history, there is no shortage of compelling populist movements. It’s important to remember two things about these movements, however. First, they haven’t been successful on a national level. Sure we remember Pat Buchanan and William Jennings Bryan, but they didn’t win.
Second, “populist” uprisings have been very different from one another in character. There is no Platonic “populist.” Some populists gain their traction on the immigration issue, others by promising handouts, others by battling cultural elites. This year, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, and John Edwards could all be said to be running populist campaigns, and their policy disagreements are stark.
Edwards’s brand of populism is grounded in resentment of the rich and antipathy towards profit. While it’s true that few people will stand up for “corporate greed” — and I am the last person to apologize for big business –, to sign on with Edwards’s class war, we don’t just need to be vaguely “populist.” We need to hate our bosses and the other successful people we know. Class warfare doesn’t work in America, because most of us believe we someday will join the other class.
If somehow Edwards’s small class-warfare army manages to nominate him, they’ll be trampled in November by the combined forces of corporate America and optimistic America.
Timothy P. Carney, senior reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report, is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money.