WHY CAN'T JOHN EDWARDS CONVINCE ME HE CARES ABOUT POVERTY? [UPDATE: See below -- I've come to think that this post is completely incorrect.] I appreciate Paul Waldman's citation of one of my favorite posts from my old (and soon to be revived) blog, the one in which I wrote, "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you." He uses my point, appropriately, to note that John Edwards's focus on poverty, like his attention to detailed policy plans, is not so much a direct appeal to the economic interests of poor people, as it is a way of portraying the kind of person he is, in order to appeal to people like, for example, me -- a middle-class, white liberal who cares about poverty, but even more than that, is attracted to the kind of candidate who has the nerveto talk about poverty, rather than the safe middle-class pabulum that the typical Democrat's pollsters tell them they should talk about.
But I'm not quite feeling it. In fact, the more I hear, the less persuaded I am that Edwards has any instinctive feeling about poverty at all. And that has nothing to do with the haircuts or his personal wealth. In part, it's related to
the points Garance makes in the excellent article that Paul was responding to: It would be a lot easier to think of Edwards as the candidate who cares about poverty if he seemed to be leading a grassroots movement that had actual poor people in it. RFK and Bill Clinton appealed to non-poor white liberals, but they also had enthusiastic support among poor people, and the two cannot easily be separated. Plus, we each get a vote, and there are a lot more poor people than there are people like me.
More important, though, is a point that Garance doesn't state as bluntly as I'm about to, but which I take to be the main point of her article: Edwards talks about poverty with race (and gender) left out of it. Poverty is not just an economic problem of lack of income, to be solved by getting people some income; it's integrally related to imbalances of power that have their roots in race.
And I just don't see any indication that Edwards understands or appreciates those inequities, or if he does, he doesn't have the nerve to talk about them. Take his personal story about poverty: He talks about empathizing with poverty because he grew up "modestly" in Seneca, SC, where his father worked in a textile mill. Here's a key fact: The textile mills of the Carolina Piedmont in the 1950s and 1960s were absolutely segregated. Almost no blacks worked in the textile mills when Edwards was growing up. African-Americans did not have even the minimal economic opportunity that Edwards' family enjoyed. So Edwards may have been near-poor by national standards, but in the world of mid-century South Carolina, his family, merely by being white, and with a father steadily employed in the mill, were royalty. There were indeed two South Carolinas and his was the advantaged one.