Politics & Policy

John Edwards Cares

Campaigning in the Big Apple.

It’s 6 P.M. on a Friday, and a few hundred New Yorkers are kicking off their weekend drinking $8 scotches and $10 martinis at a multilevel dance club called Strata, where Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall once filmed a scene for HBO’s Sex and the City. But the happy-hour crowd is not chatting and flirting. Instead, their eyes and cell phone cameras are trained on a stage in the center of the packed venue, where former Senator John Edwards is propounding positions as fashionable as his surroundings. Of course “we desperately need” universal health care, the troops out of Iraq, and an end to the genocide in Darfur. Of course we need that. But Edwards is feeling even more expansive than the room. Did you know the solutions to the climate crisis and poverty in Africa are one and the same? Just one word. Are you listening? Biofuels.

“America gets off its addiction to oil,” he posits. “We move toward biofuels. The Europeans follow. The Japanese follow. The result is, all of a sudden, [oil-rich Middle Eastern] countries have no choice. They have to develop. They have to economically develop. They have to educate their kids. The price of oil goes down. They have to politically reform. All of a sudden, the world is a safer, more secure place.”

All of a sudden. “So what happens when America moves from oil to biofuels? Well, in the United States of America, we have the land mass, we have the farms [in places like, say, Iowa], to develop these biofuels. The Europeans do not. Neither do the Japanese. So all of a sudden, they need land. Where are they likely to go? Africa. And all of a sudden, millions of children in Africa, because of the move from oil to biofuels, are lifted out of poverty.”

Maybe it’s the faintly colonial whiff given off by Edwards’s vision of Africa as the developed world’s compost heap, or maybe the preceding sequence of events was just too difficult to follow. In any case, Edwards is losing the crowd. Whenever he mentions the Europeans, a woman by the bar yells, “They’re way ahead of us.” Even the children of Africa fail to elicit applause.

Looking for a way to get back on track, Edwards concludes: “Think about the impact of American leadership, where instead of trying to expand American power, instead of this myth in Iraq, instead of the world seeing us as selfish, shortsighted, greedy, only caring about ourselves, all of a sudden, America is visionary again. All of a sudden, America is a force for good again.” This one gets loud cheering and sustained applause from the crowd. Selfless. Caring. That’s the America New Yorkers want people to see.

After the rush of noise dies down, it’s time to restore a sense of reality. “If you believe that the next president of the United States can do all these things alone, you are living in a fantasy world… Your country needs you,” Edwards says. “So, on that score, if you have your cell phone with you now, pull it out, and if you text the word ‘today’ — T-O-D-A-Y — ‘today’ to 30644…”

The previous night, Edwards gave a less rousing, more substantive address to a slightly older, more sophisticated audience at New York’s Cooper Union. Edwards kept the attendees waiting for over an hour while former New York governor Mario Cuomo improvised from old material, lampooning supply-side economics and championing higher taxes on the rich to pay for new spending.

John Edwards recently told Wolf Blitzer at a Democratic candidates’ debate, “I don’t know if I know what a rich person is.” But if you match Edwards’ tax proposals with Cuomo’s rhetoric, you get a pretty specific definition: Families with incomes of more than $200,000 fit the bill. Those earning income from investments would also pay more. Beyond these rich Americans, Edwards says he’s open to eliminating the cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes — this in order to shore up the listing system’s finances. Additional tax relief for the middle class will have to wait, as will money-saving deficit reduction. Edwards says his new spending proposals — on health care, on poverty — are more important and will save people more money in the long run.

That list of proposals just keeps on growing. At the Cooper Union Edwards unveiled plans for a new government agency, the Family Savings and Credit Commission, to protect consumers from so-called predatory lending, fast-becoming the next big thing in the world of progressive causes. How would this agency be different from the five that already oversee the sector? For one thing, it would not “overlook consumer protection in favor of bank profitability,” according to the accompanying statement from Edwards’ campaign. For another, Edwards would eliminate the Office of Thrift Supervision — one of the five — “to reduce excess regulatory bureaucracy.” With this red tape cleared, Edwards would push for national legislation setting new limits on fees and interest rates and creating a Home Rescue Fund to bail out borrowers facing foreclosure.

You see, here’s how this works: America gets off its addiction to debt. We force lenders to offer cheap credit to anyone who can fill out a mortgage application, then we set up a taxpayer-funded program to underwrite the whole thing. The Europeans follow. The Japanese follow. The result is, all of a sudden…

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