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Democratic messenger

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If Democrats won’t nominate John Edwards for president, they should at least run on his message.

InsertArt(2015252)WHY EDWARDS hasn’t climbed out of the pack is a mystery to me. Beyond his superficial assets — good looks, youth, Southern heritage — he’s got an agile mind and a natural ability to relate to people. He’s put together a sensible set of policies. He’s been running TV ads for weeks but hasn’t cracked the top three in Iowa or New Hampshire. Maybe that will change, and Edwards will get to carry his banner into the general election. But if he doesn’t, whoever beats him should pick it up and carry it in his stead.


Edwards uses a bunch of themes: I’m one of you, I’m an optimist, I’ll spread opportunity, I’ll fight the powerful interests, etc. But the important theme, the one that really cuts, is about wealth vs. work. It’s a more sophisticated version of the class warfare message Al Gore used in 2000. Gore said he would fight the powerful because they were powerful. Edwards adds a moral dimension: The economy depends on virtue as well as money, and virtue lies in work. The reason to fight for the working class isn’t just that it has less money, but that it shows more virtue.

Edwards’ announcement speech this morning elaborated on this theme. He kicked off his campaign in front of “the mill where my father worked.” He recalled working in the mill and earning his way through college. He emphasized the morality of labor. “A job is about more than a paycheck; it is about dignity, responsibility, and self-respect,” he said. In addition to the work ethic, Edwards argued, capitalism depends on good faith: “Credibility is the currency of good people.” He pledged not just to fix the economy but to put “our economy back in line with our values.”

That’s the sunny side of moralizing the economy. The dark side is cracking down on cheaters. Edwards repeated twice that the promise of America is “a fair shake for all, a free ride for none.” He singled out “Halliburton and George W. Bush’s friends” as free-riders. “Instead of turning a blind eye to CEOs who give themselves massive raises while cutting jobs,” Edwards promised to “stand up for the people who do the work.” He proposed to punish the rich not for being rich but for treachery and freeloading. Like Bill Clinton, Edwards claimed to stand up for people who “play by the rules.” But unlike Clinton, he added an explicit pledge to stand up “against those who don’t.”


The key passage in Edwards’ speech assailed Republican tax policies:

President Bush has a war on work. You see it in everything he does. He wants to eliminate every penny of tax on wealth, and shift the whole burden to people who work for a living. So people won’t pay any taxes at all when they make money from selling stocks, when they get big dividends every year, or when they inherit a massive estate. … It’s wrong to tax millionaires less for playing the market than we tax soldiers for keeping America safe.

The reason this message cuts into Bush’s base of support is that socially conservative blue-collar workers don’t vote Republican out of libertarian principle. They don’t believe in the free market or in rewarding risk. They believe in the work ethic. George W. Bush wins their votes by equating the free market with the work ethic. Show them where the free market betrays the work ethic, and they’ll vote for the candidate of the work ethic against the candidate of the free market.

That’s only half the beauty of the message. The other half is that Bush can’t get out of it. The tax breaks Edwards assails — on capital gains, dividends, and estates — aren’t just vital to Bush’s business constituency. They’re central to conservative economic theory. Work and wealth are code for labor and capital. Conservative economists believe that capital should flow freely — ideally, without being taxed — to maximize economic growth. Bush clearly believes this. On Sept. 4, he complained that under current law, the estate tax “will be revived in 2011. … The capital gains tax reductions, a vital part of encouraging capital formation, will rise by a third in 2008. The incentives for small businesses will vanish in 2006. … For the sake of economic growth, for the sake of job creation, the United States Congress must make these tax cuts permanent.”


So far, the economy hasn’t borne out Bush’s promises of job creation. If that doesn’t change by next year, he’ll be reduced to his old argument that by cutting taxes, he’s leaving the money to the people who earned it. That’s a moral argument. It depends on whether you believe that executives, heirs, and investors — in Edwards’ language, people who “play the market” — have earned, in more than a legal sense, their financial supremacy over what Edwards calls “the people who do the work.” Maybe Bush could win that debate. But not without breaking a sweat.

William Saletan is Slate’s chief political correspondent.