Guarded Pessimism

John Edwards is optimistic. Not only is he optimistic, he's not afraid to say so, peppering virtually every public appearance with references to his sunny outlook. And he's proud of it, too. "The cynics didn't build this country," the stump speech goes. "Optimists built this country." Speaking to supporters after the polls closed in New Hampshire, Edwards referred to his "extraordinary vision of optimism and hope." He's even gone so far as to name his political action committee "New American Optimists," just in case you somehow missed the speeches.

In personal terms, Edwards has every reason to be optimistic. On the merits it's a bit hard to see why a first-term senator with almost nothing in the way of legislative accomplishments under his belt would be a major contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. Nevertheless, Edwards shot out of nowhere to take second place in the Iowa caucuses. His fourth-place finish Tuesday night just behind Wesley Clark was a bit of a disappointment, but with his trajectory heading up while Clark's continues to sag, he maintains a real chance of emerging as the candidate of the South -- and, as Howard Dean and John Kerry duke it out up north, perhaps as the nominee. The odds, to be sure, are still against him, but they always have been. His rags-to-riches life story was no more likely than his presidential success, and it's a rare candidate with no political experience whatsoever who beats an incumbent Republican senator in North Carolina. Yet Edwards did it.

Conventional wisdom has it that Edwards' optimism has been key to the very successes that seem to justify it. Many voters are drawn to his upbeat message, and others, desperately seeking the most electable Democrat in the field, are drawn to the fact that others are drawn by the power of positive thinking.

Personally I find it all a bit cloying. Worse, however, it seems to fly in the face of reality. The fact is that the country is facing some rather serious problems. To the hardy perennials of an inadequate and unfair education system, a health-care system that manages to care for fewer people at a greater cost than that found anywhere else in the world, and persistent poverty, we've now added the threat of terrorism, the need to successfully complete an unrelated war in Iraq, and an astoundingly large budget deficit (which is projected to grow larger in the future). Daunting challenges do not call for a response of despair, but they do call for realism. Realistically, either long-standing problems will have to be put on the back burner as a new administration gets the house back in order or ambitious new initiatives will need to be paid for by tax increases and spending cuts going beyond what is barely necessary to keep the country from falling off the fiscal cliff.

Edwards has attracted praise from many pundits (myself included) for both his detailed policy proposals and his speeches which provide a sharp diagnosis of the current state of the country.

What's less noticed is the gap between the grandiose rhetoric and the small-bore reality of the proposals. Speaking in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 5, Edwards said he wanted "to take a moment to talk about something you're not hearing presidential candidates talk about enough: the tens of millions of Americans who live in poverty." Good for him for raising an issue that Democrats have shied away from in recent years. His plan, however – payroll tax cuts, while worthy, simply isn't going to do a great deal to help those most in need.

Edwards promises to "revitalize our manufacturing base," but his proposal for doing so -- ensuring that all new trade agreements include labor and environmental standards -- will accomplish no such thing. Insofar as recent manufacturing job losses really are attributable to trade (a debatable proposition), they have occurred under existing agreements.

It's not that these are bad ideas. They're rather good ones, as are almost all of the proposals in Edwards' 60-page campaign booklet of "real solutions," which include ending legacy admissions at colleges and increasing the number of neighborhood-watch groups. It's just that they fall far short of being, well, real solutions to the "two Americas" phenomenon he's identified in his speeches.

All politicians have a tendency to overpromise, but the situation becomes problematic when a candidate centers his campaign on a theme of optimism. Not surprisingly, optimists don't like to talk about the fact that if you want to balance the budget — and yet do not impose an increase, however modest, in middle-class taxes — you cannot solve the big problems.

There is a method here, of course: Namely, the public doesn't like to hear about hard choices. Polls consistently show solid support for cutting taxes, increasing spending, and balancing the budget. The only problem is that it can't be done.

But, even taken purely as a campaign strategy, there is a problem here: It's hard to see how any Democrat could possibly outflank the incumbent as the candidate of wishful thinking. The president, after all, is the one proposing to make his current tax cuts permanent; increase domestic discretionary spending by 4 percent; and increase military, homeland-security, and entitlement spending by more than that -- all while adding new tax cuts and balancing the budget. In the meantime, he thinks we can fly to Mars, take on $1 trillion in transition costs as Social Security is partially privatized, solve the health-care crisis with tax cuts, help people pay for college with more tax cuts, and further strengthen the retirement system with even more tax cuts. It's utter nonsense, of course, but it's certainly optimistic.

Faced with Bush's "candy for everyone!" politics, pessimism may be the Democrats' only hope. If things look bad in Iraq and job growth remains weak through November, all the president's promises will do him little good. But hoping for short-term failure isn't very optimistic. It's not a safe bet, either: Bush's policies are calculated to maximize his short-term electoral prospects while pushing problems into 2005, 2009, or 2013 -- when he won't need to pay a price at the polls.

Unless the Democrats get lucky (and the American people get unlucky), the party's going to have to persuade people to worry about the long-term costs of Bushism and make the case for a sounder approach. This may not work, and, indeed, historical precedent suggests that it won't.

When Walter Mondale looked at the deficits of the mid-'80s and said, "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I," he was perfectly correct. But it didn't do him much good on election day. Selling pessimism is a lot harder than telling people what they want to hear. But Edwards' policy proposals are simply far too responsible to out-optimist the president -- no matter how frequently he repeats his mantra.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow.

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