John Edwards had a pretty strong start to his presidential campaign: articulating a fairly clear populist vision, and candidly answering sticky questions to show how he would realize that vision.
(Time reported that at his announcement: “He answered so many questions that reporters practically ran out of things to ask.”)
In 2004, he struggled to break out of the pretty boy/empty suit image. This time around, he’s on his way to claiming the substance mantle.
In particular, on ABC’s This Week he did not flinch when George Stephanopoulos said his plans would, “cost a lot of money.” Edwards responded:
Let me speak to that. There is a tension between the desire, which I have myself, of getting us out of this ditch we’re in fiscally and, at the same time, doing the things that I believe we need to do to transform America to be effective in the 21st century.
Energy … universal healthcare … strengthening the middle class, doing things to lift 37 million people out of poverty, all those things cost money, [which] means you cannot do about the deficit what you’d like to do…
…If I were choosing now between which is more important, I think the investments are more important…
…we can’t let the deficit get worse. We’d like to see it reduced.
But I do not believe we can reduce it as substantially as we’d love to see done for the long-term fiscal and economic health of America and do the other things that need to be done, too.
He also was admirably candid when it came to the possibility of increasing taxes.
When Stephanopoulos asked about “sacrifices” to achieve energy independence, part of Edwards’ answer was:
…at the end of the day, we may be faced with more serious choices.
People are concerned about a gasoline tax, including myself, because of its regressive nature. You can’t take it off the table.
[A] carbon tax, which Vice President Gore has been talking about — is it a necessity? Not yet, in my judgment, [but] I would never take those things off the table.
Edwards is absolutely right — substantively and politically — to recognize the need to take these matters head on.
Only then can the Democratic Party build a solid mandate for policy change, able to withstand right-wing counterattack.
Having said that, there’s a reason why most politicians don’t talk candidly about fiscal matters.
Because candid talk, not handled delicately, can be political suicide.
Regarding taxes, Wait! Don’t Move To Canada! cautions:
… let’s be careful not to sell fair and adequate taxation with an “eat your spinach” style of message.
In the 1992 Democratic presidential primary, former Sen. Paul Tsongas earned some niche appeal by refusing to embrace a middle-class tax cut, saying harshly, “I’m not Santa Claus.” But Clinton was able to pierce his bubble by retorting, “I am tired of what is cold-blooded being passed off as courageous,” and “People have been plundered for a decade. It’s time to ease up.”
Clinton preached fairness for a brighter tomorrow, while Tsongas preached pain, and the uplifting vision won.
Politicians shouldn’t be scolding people that they have to suck it up and pay their taxes. You don’t tell the shareholders what to do. We are the ones who decide what our government should do and how much we should pay for it.
The politician’s job is to help voters make informed decisions, not to condescend and shove policies down their throats.
If Democrats regularly present to voters the straight dope on how we have prospered with fair and adequate taxation and how we have struggled under reckless tax cutting, while stressing that the ultimate decision on taxes rests in the people’s hands, Republicans will have a tougher time charging Democrats with forcing pain on the public.
Edwards’ comments on energy taxes veered pretty close to preaching pain.
He can make the same point, better framed as a public choice so we can attain the vision of an energy independent America.