Edwards plants his flag out in left field

Published March 18, 2007

Caught up in March Madness - presidential campaigning, not basketball - I have begun to tune out Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the moment as I try to size up the one Southern Democrat in the race, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

While most of the other top-tier Democratic contenders are staying close to the political center, Edwards has swerved to the left. I find that interesting, because it occurred to me that three of the most prominent liberal voices in the Democratic Party these days are Southerners - former President Jimmy Carter, former Vice President Al Gore and now John Edwards. Talk about a New South.

I use the word "liberal" loosely and only to suggest that the three Southerners have taken positions on issues that put them in favor with their party's left wing, from antiwar activists to Wal-Mart bashers. Of course, you don't have to be a liberal to hate the Iraq war or to resent corporate greed.

Carter stands out as one of the few leading Democrats willing to criticize Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. He has a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on human rights, and he even invited the leftist filmmaker Michael Moore to sit with him at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Gore was out front and resolute in opposing the Iraq war and has been one of President Bush's harshest critics on environmental and foreign policy issues. He has won international acclaim for his activism on the threat of global warming and has been nominated for a Nobel Prize.

Edwards is more complicated. Making his second bid for his party's presidential nomination, the one-term senator is campaigning, often in denim jeans, as an "us against them" populist who, as president, would stand with ordinary people against powerful corporate interests. The one thing Edwards won't do is live like ordinary people who shop at Wal-Mart. The former personal injury lawyer lives on a 102-acre estate near Raleigh in a 28,000-square-foot home with basketball and squash courts and a swimming pool. Price tag: $4-million.

So, just how far to the left has Edwards moved since he was John Kerry's vice-presidential running mate in 2004? And how much of the shift is genuine and how much of it is a political calculation? It's hard to know.

He voted to go to war in Iraq and defended that vote throughout the 2004 campaign. Now he rarely misses a chance to say his vote was wrong and to express regret. Edwards wants Congress to use the power of the purse to force the immediate withdrawal of 50,000 U.S. troops from Iraq, with the remainder to follow within 12 to 18 months. Unlike Hillary, he has made peace with the party's antiwar wing.

On the home front, Edwards has proposed a universal health care plan that would cost as much as $120-billion a year, paid for with tax increases on the wealthiest Americans. According to the Washington Post, he tells audiences that his plan could lead to a government-run, single-payer health care system, a position no other Democrat has taken so far.

You won't hear Edwards promising to reduce the federal deficit, either. He says investing more in education, alternative energy sources and antipoverty programs is more important than deficit reduction.

His domestic agenda is appealing. However, it remains to be seen how moderate and independent voters will react to the way Edwards has thrown himself prostrate at the feet of union bosses and liberal bloggers. He has joined union protesters on picket lines outside Wal-Mart stores, and his campaign manager is David Bonior, a former Michigan congressman who has close ties with organized labor. Edwards talks about "fair trade" to disguise his protectionist leanings.

Sometimes you have to wonder if liberal bloggers are running the Edwards campaign. He refused to fire two flaming left-wing bloggers on his campaign team who provoked a firestorm of criticism with the offensive remarks about the Catholic Church. Both bloggers later resigned. If he wins the Democratic nomination, Edwards will have some explaining to do with Catholic voters.

More recently, Edwards refused to participate in a Democratic debate in Nevada after Net-roots activists urged candidates to boycott the debate because it was co-sponsored by Fox News. Edwards was the first to bail out, and the debate was canceled.

At this rate, we shouldn't be surprised if Edwards invites Michael Moore to join him on the campaign trail.