IT'S NOT WHAT YOU SAY ABOUT POVERTY... Garance makes some interesting observations in her piece about John Edwards and low-income voters, but I have to say, I doubt Edwards is banking on a huge groundswell of support for his candidacy from poor Americans. That's not really the political point of his emphasis on poverty.
Before we get to why, let me say emphatically that I don't doubt for a second Edwards' sincerity on this issue. It's plain that he cares about it deeply, and that's why he's spending so much time talking about it. At the same time, though, he is running for president, so he has obviously thought about the politics involved. So if he isn't looking for the votes of lower-income Americans, what's the calculation?
To understand, we can revisit something Mark Schmitt wrote back in 2004, in an all-time classic post:
If I were running the issues department of the Kerry campaign, or any campaign, the sign above my desk would not be James Carville's "It's the Economy Stupid": my sign would say, "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you." That is, as a candidate, you must choose to emphasize issues not because they poll well or are objectively our biggest problems, but because they best show the kind of person you are, and not just how you would deal with that particular issue, but others yet to rear their heads. The best illustration of that is John McCain. The most admired political figure achieved his status in large part by his crusade for campaign finance reform. I've seen all the polls on this for seven or eight years, and "campaign finance reform," as an issue, is of interest to at most 5% of the public. I'd like for it to be otherwise, but it's not. And yet, for McCain, campaign finance reform is the perfect issue. It's tells a story about his independence, and his persistence, and it gives him a populist message without having to embrace more liberal economic policies. Clinton's much-derided "micro-initiatives" of the mid-1990s likewise sent a message about who he was: responsible, not extreme, neither a lover of government for its own sake nor a nihilist like Newt Gingrich. The insignificance of his gestures was a potent message in itself, and saved his presidency.
Poverty functions in the same way for Edwards (or at least it should). The political effect is that it tells people something about who Edwards is: that he cares about people who are suffering, that he hasn't forgotten the modest circumstances from which he came, and that he has the courage to tackle big, seemingly intractable problems.
Of course, it's awfully difficult to tell that story about yourself when every time you talk about the issue, reporters can only write about what a hypocrite and a phony you are for wanting to do something about poverty when you yourself are not actually poor. Have you heard that John Edwards has gotten expensive haircuts? Well, they'll make sure to remind you.