On Obama/ Edwards Populism/ Progressivism

Can someone help me understand Meyerson’s distinctions?

Barack Obama and John Edwards are just now having at it, and each is touching distinct themes in the final appeals to Iowa voters. Obama seems more in the tradition of the early-20th-century progressives, middle-class reformers who sought to clean up politics to restore a functioning democracy. Edwards is more in the tradition of the early-20th-century populists, railing at the monied interests that really ran the country.

But Obama is a rather populist progressive, a onetime community organizer who understands the power of organized popular protest. And Edwards is a progressive populist, heir to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, not William Jennings Bryan or Huey Long.

Obama is akin to the progressive reformers who wish to clean up the system (Lafollet, Feingold) but also understands power of organized popular protest. I get the first part from his emphasis that he can transcend the partisanship Clinton stirs. I love the unity message. Have I missed him mentioned the details? Are details not important if someone can help Congressional leaders sit down and negotiate in good faith about Social Security? Have we seen his populist/community organizer identity in the campaign to date, or is it dormant?

Edwards rails at the monied interests that really run the country, like populists, but is more FDR & LBJ than Bryan or Long. So less pious and nativist? More bureaucratic than authentic?

Matt Stoller at Open Left finds Edwards more sympathetic to the current progressive movement and Obama’s unity message incompatible with fighting for true change.

I’ll be rooting for a John Edwards win in the Iowa caucuses.

There are two basic pieces that frame my thinking on politics. The first is the Bar Fight Primary. If you believe we need a political realignment, as I do, or a different way of governing, then it’s worthwhile to examine Reagan’s career and his turn to change America. In 1980, Ronald Reagan showed that he was willing to unify America, to change the way citizens thought about their relationship to their government. Only, he was no centrist, he unified the country against liberals. To start his campaign, he picked a fight against the civil rights movement, and the first thing he did in office was to illegally crush a union. That is how you realign, through aggressive divisive persuasive arguments and actions. Only Edwards has put forward an aggressive populist message, one conducive to the partisanship we need. And while he has no strong political accomplishments and I’m not sure he’d run a good general election campaign, he’s succeeding somehow in Iowa with almost no media focus and a deep hostility from DC (marked by his fundraising circles, which unlike those of Clinton and Obama are entirely driven by non-DC sources). That is admirable, even if I don’t fully understand how he’s doing it. And if he can keep doing it, that will neuter the DC Village, which is something we desperately need to do.

Obama is the only other candidate who could do this, but I do not think he will. Though both he and Edwards have phenomenally good media and internet platforms, Obama’s campaign is marked by cynical boasts about irrelevant non-accomplishments reigning in the power lobbyists and a fake aversion to the DC establishment that loves him and slathers him with cash. He has gay-baited and sister souljah’s liberals, and aggressively repudiated progressive ideas with statements like “I don’t think in ideological terms. I never have.” His most recent right-wing attack is on John Edwards being a trial lawyer, but he has not hesitated to come at Clinton from the right. There are also subtle differences between Edwards and Obama that mark Edwards more serious about progressive governance, like how Obama would restrict all lobbyists, while Edwards would only restrict corporate lobbyists. [I think Stoller got that backwards]

And at the end of the day, unlike Dodd (who I would endorse if he were top-tier), both Clinton and Obama failed to do anything to stop the horrifically anti-American Military Commissions Act from passing in 2006 that legalized torture and got rid of habeast corpus; Obama deserves special scorn for his 2006 work and his abandonment of Ned Lamont, though Bill Clinton isn’t far behind (Edwards came straight up to Connecticut after the primary victory, as did Wes Clark).


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