Why Edwards Could Have Won - But Didn't

Compared with most of his Democratic rivals, Sen. John Edwards was, well, stunningly under-qualified to be president.

Yet what he accomplished in this primary season — the only contender to Sen. John Kerry left standing on Super Tuesday — was nothing short of extraordinary. He eschewed mudslinging, which everyone pretends to abhor but which everyone seems to use to get an edge. But even without it, the one-term senator brought down three Goliaths: not only the formidable Dr. Howard Dean but also four-star general Wesley Clark and one-time vice-presidential nominee Dick Gephardt.

How? It's the stump speech. Edwards barnstormed the country talking about “two Americas”: one rich, one poor. He spoke of workers who toil longer hours while enjoying only slight increases in income. Not only were wealthy Americans reaping the rewards of increased productivity, but their tax burden also has been lightened while middle-class families pay an increasing share of taxes.

The picture was somewhat exaggerated; except for those who lost their jobs in the restructuring of American industry, most workers are better off now than they were before the technological boom, which brought dramatically increased productivity. The median real income at the end of 2002 was 6% higher than it was in 1995 and 21% higher than in 1970. Income inequality between rich and poor is still increasing but at a slower rate in recent years.

If families are having a harder time making ends meet, rampant consumerism is largely to blame, increased saving the solution. But Edwards struck a chord and Catholic politicians should take notice. The idea of a living wage, a family wage, is deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition. Catholics who have flocked to the Republican Party for fundamental moral reasons ought not to forget the broader social teaching of the Church.

Edwards is not the first politician to use this rhetoric of the two nations. In the 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli rose to become prime minister of Great Britain by talking about two Englands, rich and poor. His 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations proposed a way for political leaders to bridge the chasm between rich and poor.

Disraeli's strategy was to play both sides against the middle. In his early years in Parliament, Disraeli identified himself as a “radical Tory.” In our political terms, this would sound something like “populist Republican.” Disraeli out-flanked the liberal establishment of his day, the educated, professional, bureaucratic class, by forming an alliance between the monarchy and the working classes.

Disraeli recognized that the motive power of modern government is public opinion. His genius was to mobilize public opinion behind conservative moral values, epitomized by Queen Victoria, by creatively addressing the legitimate needs of working people. Disraeli thus revitalized and recreated the Tory Party and helped Victorian morality permeate all ranks of society.

Indeed, Disraeli recognized that moral issues and workers' issues frequently intersect. Economic pressures in the early industrial revolution forced many women out of the home and into the workplace. Children were growing up without moral supervision, and the marriage bond was weakening. Even worse, children were frequently forced into factories and mines at an early age, sacrificing their spiritual and physical health to the industrial system.

Disraeli fought for limitations on the hours women and children could work. His reforms also increased wages for male breadwinners, enabling women to return to the home and raise their children. The new Victorian morality was largely passed on by these stay-at-home moms.

While populist, Disraeli as prime minister avoided creating a big government. Whenever possible, he promoted reform by passing permissive laws rather than compulsory restrictions. That is, his government offered financial incentives to local communities to move toward better living and working conditions for the poor. For example, the 1875 Artisans' Dwelling Act offered government loans to cities that built working-class housing.

Disraeli's policy of “persuasion and example” at the local level, rather than excessive regulation, was thoroughly in keeping with the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, that central authorities ought not to interfere with communities in local matters. One of his characters argues that England “should think more of the community and less of the government.” Disraeli's vision of society was “a free monarchy, established on fundamental laws, itself the apex of a vast pile of municipal and local government.”

Disraeli's moral reforms might have lasted longer had he not combined patriotism with imperialism, drawing his kingdom into foreign entanglements. Imperialism, including the Middle Eastern morass that has been bequeathed to us, sapped Britain's national strength and will during the endless wars of the 20th century.

John Edwards can take heart from the fact that Disraeli, despised at first for his originality as well as his Jewishness, rode his “two nations” rhetoric from the back benches of Parliament all the way to Downing Street. But Edwards should also take caution from Disraeli's story, because it points to the weakness in his own political agenda.

The common people are generally conservative, patriotic, rooted in their local soil. Disraeli recognized that no program of economic reform would engage the minds and hearts of the working classes unless it were combined with an appeal to national pride and traditional values. Edwards offers no such appeal.

This Democratic primary season has been encouraging in that the anointed candidate of the media, Dr. Dean, was trounced by ordinary people in local communities who trudged through snow and rain to express their preferences. But the old, unionized working classes are gone, and the Democrats will never succeed in bringing the new working class into the political process so long as they are tied to feminist and homosexual ideologues and to partisans of big central government.

On the other hand, what an opportunity for some Catholic politician to follow in Disraeli's footsteps, realigning the political parties by playing both ends against the middle, mobilizing religious conservatives and working people behind a program of family values and social justice.

Scott McDermott's biography Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Faithful Revolutionary is currently available at www.scepterpublishers.org.

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