The John Edwards who today announces his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination is a very different contender from the fresh-faced young senator who in 2004 bid for the party nod — and eventually secured a place on the ticket as the vice presidential nominee.
By any measure, he has a lot more to offer progressives than he did in 2004. That potential to appeal to the party's left flank is essential for Edwards, who will need an ideological base as he struggles for attention in a race where New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama have been sucking most of the air out of the contest.
Edwards struggled to craft a message in 2004. After stumbling frequently and, many assumed, fatally in 2003, he finally developed the "two Americas" stump speech that identified him as a candidate who was serious about broadening the national debate to include a serious discussion of the dangerous gap between rich and poor in America.
Even as he improved as a speaker and debater, however, Edwards remained a vague and frequently ill-defined candidate. He condemned President Bush's management of the war in Iraq, and was particularly critical of the war profiteering that had been allowed — if not encouraged — by the White House. But Edwards took no clear stand on the war.
Edwards talked tough about the need to protect American farmers. But he developed a "farm plan" that seemed more sympathetic to agribusiness than to working farmers.
Edwards tried to portray himself as a champion of labor. But he never really developed a coherent, let alone effective, message on the central issue for unions and their members: trade policies that favor multinational corporations and Wall Street over working Americans and Main Street.
Despite his flaws, Edwards did well enough in 2004 to merit another look in 2008. And he has given progressives reason to be impressed. Many migrated to the Edwards camp late in the 2004 race in hopes of blocking the candidacy of an even more flawed contender, John Kerry.
For one thing, instead of announcing on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Edwards is heading to New Orleans, where his "two Americas" theme is illustrated by the stark reality of the federal government's ongoing neglect of Hurricane Katrina victims. And he has answered his critics' old "Where's the beef?" question with comprehensive plans for guaranteed universal health care and providing equal access to education.
Edwards is also more focused and more right about the Iraq war. He has acknowledged that he was wrong to vote in 2002 to authorize Bush to attack Iraq. He wants to begin bringing the troops home quickly and he is steadfastly opposed to the construction of permanent bases.
On trade and agriculture issues, he has shown perhaps the greatest evidence of growth. In addition to taking tough stances against individual flawed trade pacts, he has hired as his campaign manager former Congressman David Bonior, D-Michigan, who for years was the leading House foe of the corporation-friendly trade policies favored by the last two administrations.
Most indications suggest that Edwards gets it. That does not mean he is the perfect contender, nor that he is the perfect progressive. But he has grown a great deal over the past several years, and that growth has been in a serious, smart and savvy direction that progressives would be wise to note at this relatively early stage in the 2008 contest.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation