John Edwards, Populist

JOHN EDWARDS, POPULIST….A few months ago I was vaguely leaning toward John Edwards as my favorite in the Democratic race. Although I didn’t (and still don’t) have a detailed understanding of his positions, his policy choices seemed basically OK, he was personable enough to stand up to Bush, he had a good national security record, he knew how to raise money, and he was a Southerner. It seemed like a reasonable combination of electability and decent liberal credentials.

But then he seemed to disappear. Howard Dean became a media darling, Dick Gephardt unveiled a (semi) universal healthcare plan, and John Kerry started going on the attack. Edwards was nowhere to be seen.

So I’m happy to see him give a rousing speech like this last week:

[George Bush’s] economic vision has one goal: to get rid of taxes on unearned income and shift the tax burden onto people who work. This crowd wants a world where the only people who have to pay taxes are the ones who do the work.

….This is a question of values, not taxes. We should cut taxes, but we shouldn?t cut and run from our values when we do. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan argued for tax cuts as an incentive for people to work harder: Americans work hard, and the government shouldn?t punish them when they do.

This crowd is making a radically different argument. They don?t believe work matters most. They don?t believe in helping working people build wealth. They genuinely believe that the wealth of the wealthy matters most. They are determined to cut taxes on that wealth, year after year, and heap more and more of the burden on people who work.

How do we know this? Because they don?t even try to hide it. The Bush budget proposed tax-free tax shelters for millionaires that are bigger than most Americans? paychecks for an entire year. And just last week, Bush?s tax guru, Grover Norquist, said their goal is to abolish the capital gains tax, abolish the dividend tax, and let the wealthiest shelter as much as they want tax-free.

That’s some good crowd pleasing populism, and it pretty closely matches my own views. Today’s movement conservatives, having already abandoned the middle class, are now explicitly endorsing the idea of eliminating taxes on unearned income and reducing the top marginal rates on earned income to the point where all too many of the super-rich and their trust fund offspring pay a lower tax rate than your average auto factory worker. After two decades of this, I believe pretty strongly that middle class taxes need to be cut while taxes at the top need to be increased pretty substantially. Edwards’ speech presents a plan that does just that.

So good for him. I hope he can present a vision of national security that’s equally coherent, equally tough, and as equally informed by liberal values. If he does, he could be a pretty tough candidate to beat.