Edwards not new to populism

SUMMARY: Barack Obama criticized John Edwards as not being a "raging populist" back in 2004. But if you look at Edwards' first run for Senate in 1998 and his two runs for president, you'll find Edwards has consistently campaigned on defending the interests of regular people against big business.

With the Democratic caucus in Iowa turning into a close three-way race among Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama, the candidates are starting to throw some sharp elbows. They don't call it going negative; they call it drawing distinctions between themselves and the other candidates.

John Edwards, for instance, has charged that Clinton and Obama would be too willing to compromise with special interests. In response, Obama took the opportunity during an interview with the Washington Post on Nov. 8, 2007, to jab back at Edwards' record.

"John wasn't this raging populist four years ago when he ran" for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama said. "He certainly wasn't when he ran for the U.S. Senate. He was in the U.S. Senate for six years, and as far as I can tell wasn't taking on the lobbyists and special interests. It's a matter of, do you walk the walk that you talk?"

So is Edwards a Johnny-come-lately to populism? It's an important question, because analysts regularly give Edwards credit for keeping poverty and economic inequality in the national spotlight.

Populism is a political philosophy that defends the interests of ordinary people from an elite, said Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University history professor who studies social movements and politics. Republicans typically focus on cultural populism, such as their appeals to conservative evangelicals. Democrats, meanwhile, focus on economic populism, arguing against corporations and big business. As for Edwards, Kazin said, "He obviously fits in with the economic side of it" with his theme of two Americas, one rich and one struggling.

Edwards has run for major office three times: He ran for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina in 1998, and he's run for president in 2004 and 2008. News reports from his 1998 race show Edwards was described as a populist early on, running as "the people's senator" and saying he would help fight powerful interests like the insurance lobby, just as he did in his career as a successful trial lawyer.

Ferrel Guillory, a longtime Edwards watcher and director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, analyzed Edwards as a "suburban populist" back in 1998. In a 2007 interview with PolitiFact.com, Guillory recalled that first race. "The way Edwards framed himself was very much in tune with the modern suburban Southern middle class, who have anxieties about their medical care, about the quality of their children's education, and about their future," he said.

If Obama didn't think of Edwards as a populist in 2004, a lot of other people seemed to. The Los Angeles Times wrote of Edwards, "The North Carolina senator lays his populist cards on the table in New Hampshire," while David Brooks wrote a column about Edwards titled, "The Happy Populist." Brooks, a conservative columnist, criticized Edwards' ideas as "false" and "too facile," but he painted a striking picture of classic populist rhetoric: "The emotional climax of his speech comes when he describes how he used to represent 'people like you' against teams of highly paid, distinguished corporate lawyers. 'And you know what happened? I beat them, and I beat them, and I beat them again!' The crowds go crazy..."

Guillory said Edwards has struck populist themes his entire political life, but that's not to say Edwards hasn't sharpened his rhetoric and branched out to other populist issues over the years. During the course of the two presidential campaigns, Edwards has increased his support of unions, a crucial Democratic constituency, and spoken out more about international trade policy.

"Edwards is in a different place than he was in 1998," Guillory said. "But it's not like he couldn't go back and give his speeches from 1998. He's just running for a different office in a different context."

Edwards also has a long-standing policy of refusing money from federal lobbyists, starting with the 1998 Senate race. He has been criticized for accepting money from trial lawyers and from state political action groups, but so does Obama. (See our previous checks on Edwards' and Obama's fundraising claims here and here .) Mostly, though, Edwards has funded his campaign with the millions he earned as a trial lawyer.

The best ground for Obama to criticize Edwards on is his populist Senate record. Edwards' most highly regarded policy work was on the Patient's Bill of Rights, which passed the Senate in 2001 but couldn't get a vote in the House of Representatives. Edwards served only a single term in the Senate, and during part of that time he was either running for president or running as vice president with nominee John Kerry — not a formula for substantial legislative achievement in "taking on the lobbyists and special interests."

But as Obama, a one-term senator himself, would surely say, there's more to a candidate's political platform than legislation passed and enacted.

Considering Edwards' entire political career, we give Obama a False ruling on his remark that Edwards came to populism recently. His Senate record may not be the most substantial, but Edwards has consistently raised issues of economic inequality his entire political career.



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