CAN THIS MAN SOLVE POVERTY? He's good. Better, in fact, than you remember. I just got back from a National Press Club luncheon where former VP candidate John Edwards gave the first substantive policy address of his yet-unannounced 2008 candidacy. News that Edwards can command a crowd's attention is scarcely news at all, so I'll not dwell on that. Nor will anyone be particularly shocked -- though some will be enthused, and others inspired -- to hear that Edwards wishes to make the elimination of poverty a national crusade. Here's what is new:
� Poverty is going to be John Edwards foreign policy. That's not to say he'll lack a variety of proposals and opinions on our dealings with other countries. He's called for the immediate withdrawal of 40,000 troops from Iraq and just coauthored a book on Russia with Jack Kemp. But his vision, his mega-critique of our foreign policy direction, will be about poverty. Edwards's big idea seems, at least from this speech, to be downright Beinartian -- America can only restore its moral authority around the world by showing some here at home. As other countries intently watch our nation, their willingness to accept our leadership depends mightily on their estimation of our righteousness. "How we work to improve our country and lift our people up," he said, "is critical to restoring American leadership in the world." Put another way, if we're stronger at home, we'll be more respected abroad.
� It will also be his domestic policy. But for Edwards, poverty isn't about the poor, it's about the rich. "Ending poverty is not something we do for others, but something we do for all of us. It says something about us." Poverty, in his hands, is about us, not them. Its perpetuation isn't the fault of the unemployed minority, but the shame of the blessed majority. He's attempting to transform the issue, rendering it a referendum on the moral character and compassion of the country.
� He's also moved to specifics. During the Q&A, he said his poverty plan would cost about $20 billion. That obviously ignores the health care plan, which he's not yet released the details of but has promised will guarantee comprehensive coverage to all -- "no wiggle-words" or excuses. As for poverty, here are the major proposals:
1) Reform the poverty measure, which is a 1950s era anachronism based on food costs. Get an accurate metric which delivers an accurate count. Early estimations show that we'll have about a million more folks in poverty using such a standard.
2) Create a million "stepping-stone" jobs over five years. These positions would be open to individuals who have searched for a private sector job for six months and found nothing. They would pay minimum wage and last up to a year. These would be public works or non-profit positions.
3) Raise the minimum wage to at least $7.50, triple the Earned Income tax Credit for workers without children, and end the marriage penalty hidden in the way it treats low-income couples.
4) Strengthen labor laws and pass the "Employee Free Choice Act."
5) Radically reform the department of Housing and Urban Development and create a million new housing vouchers to economically integrate neighborhoods. Create tax credits and asset-building programs to aid first-time homeowners. Crack down on predatory lending and open easier avenues for home loans.
6) Promote savings through "work bonds," a new income subsidy that would match wages up to $500 annually and deposit the cash directly into a bank account.
There were also some miscellaneous promises to expand access to college, incentivize marriage, help rural communities, etc. This was a meaty speech, though, not the type of address you deliver if you're not hungrily eyeing an office with the power to implement it. There's been no announcement, but based on what I saw today, and the series of speeches promised for the next year or so, I'd say Edwards is almost definitely running.