Eugene Debs, Meet Bobby Kennedy

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If Edwards can’t win, somebody’s forgotten to tell the candidate. With a day left before Nevadans caucus Saturday morning, John Edwards is pulling out all the rhetorical stops to wow his supporters.

Several hundred fans, a large number of them blue-collar workers, crammed into the Carpenters’ Union hall in Reno Thursday evening to hear the candidate deliver an impassioned plea for change.

Eleven months ago, when the Democrats held their first candidates’ forum, in Carson City, Nevada, I covered the event for Mother Jones. Back in ’04, I’d found Edwards somewhat syrupy. In Carson City, by contrast, he was magnetic. And in the year since he has honed his message and his delivery still further.

Dressed in a casual black shirt and jeans, in the sweaty intimacy of a crowded union hall—big carpenters sitting on the platform behind him, muscular 1930s-styled union posters adorning the walls—Edwards decried the state of Bush’s America. There was a rage, and a passion to his presentation that went well beyond simply hamming it up to the crowd.

To my mind, his words are worth quoting at length. They have the barnstorming fury of a Eugene Debs, perhaps a later-years Bobby Kennedy.

On the war on terror: “Here’s a radical idea. How about we have a President of the United States who believes in the Constitution and Bill of Rights? I will close Guantanamo, which is an embarrassment. No renditions. There will be no torture permissible.”

On labor: “When I am President and it becomes necessary for you to go on strike, when you’re walking that picket line, nobody, nobody will walk through that line and take your job from you.”

On corporate profiteering and widespread poverty: “I see an America where last year Exxon Mobil made $40 billion and the CEO of one of the largest health care companies made $200 million. And I contrast it with a picture of 40 million Americans who have no health care coverage and have to go to the emergency room to get treatment. Thirty seven million will wake up literally worried about feeding their families and children. Children are living on the streets in America—while Exxon Mobil made $40 billion. Last year 35 million went hungry in America. Enough is enough. We’re better than this.”

On the need for change: “We can start a tidal wave of change that spreads across this country with a power and with a force that cannot be stopped. And when that wave of change is done and that wave has spread across America, every one of us will be able to look our children in the eyes and say, ‘We did for you what our parents and grandparents did for us. We made absolutely certain that we left America better than we found it and we gave you a better life than we had.'”

Edwards may well not win the nomination—though he’s still a serious contender. And if he doesn’t, he will have lost not to a novice but to another heavyweight candidate. In a sense, there’s a refreshing luxury of choice between quality candidates this time around. But as long as Edwards is in the race, the issues of poverty and justice are going to be talked about in a way, and with a passion, that hasn’t been seen in mainstream politics for decades.

Edwards’ booklet, The Plan to Build One America [pdf], outlines in great detail the candidate’s plans to tackle poverty, hunger, the health care crisis, the growing income gaps in the country, and the decline of America’s international reputation. Perhaps most importantly, he goes to bat for organized labor in a way no other candidate is doing.

Equally refreshing is what’s not in the plan. While he does write about crime and drugs, neither merits its own section—a welcome change from the years of tough-on-crime hysteria when every candidate, of whatever political persuasion, had to prove that they were tougher and badder and meaner than their opponents, with the end result that America became the leading incarceration nation on earth.

Win or lose, Edwards campaign is raising the bar, pushing social justice issues center-stage, and fighting the good fight for a constituency at the wrong end of an awful lot of changes these past several years.

—Sasha Abramsky


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