Viewpoint -- Steelworkers Convention Hosts Presidential Candidates -- Part Two: John Edwards

One reporter's somewhat cynical take on the recent Democratic campaign stop at the USW leadership convention and candidate forum in Cleveland.

The United Steelworkers (USW) recently extended invitations to the full field of presidential candidates to come speak at its leadership convention. Four Democrats showed up -- Biden, Edwards, Kucinich and Clinton -- and said mostly what you would expect, considering the context, with just enough deviations from the script to keep me awake. I know I sound cynical, so sue me (hey, John Edwards may need work soon enough...)

One John Edwards, Two Americas

During his speech to the USW on July 5, John Edwards offered himself as a direct, night-meets-day alternative to the present administration. And just like Joe Biden before him, he took a mighty swing at the Bush piata, making contact most strongly on issues of trade and energy policy, health care, and his signature issue, economic justice for all.

Yes, as John Edwards will point out to anyone willing to listen, the income gap has widened considerably over the last six years to the point where he describes the present situation as consisting of as "two Americas." OK, I get the point. We have the greatest disparity of wealth since the Great Depression, and the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Two Americas, though? One has enough problems, Senator -- lets stick to one for now, thanks.

Besides, as a Presidential candidate, Edwards stands in fairly elite economic company -- in fact, most of this crop of candidates are millionaires many times over. If Michael Bloomberg enters as an Independent as is expected, he'll probably push the average 2008 presidential candidate income to over half a billion dollars or so.

As an investor, Edwards is certainly no populist -- according to his financial disclosure statement his investments include some of the largest corporations in America (such as 3M, Apache, Apple, Cisco, Dell, GE, Home Depot, Intel, Microsoft, Pepsi, P&G, Target, UPS etc.). In short, hes doing pretty well for himself (insert expensive haircut joke here).

Personal wealth aside, Edwards stubborn insistence on speaking about poverty in America to the USW leadership was impressive and compelling in a morbid, "watch him totally lose the audiences attention" kind of way.

"I think it says something about the character of America how we treat 37 million Americans who worry about feeding and clothing their children," he said, adding emphatically "This is not OK."

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Joe Biden

Dennis Kucinich

Hillary Clinton

Although we can all agree on the moral imperative behind ensuring that American children don't freeze or starve, this is just not an issue that is going to win Edwards swing voters in the primary, much less the general election (if he even gets there again, and if he keeps talking poverty he probably won't).

Talking to steelworkers afterwards, my sense is that, even those who strongly identify themselves as "middle-class" (not to mention "decent human beings") are feeling too economically insecure themselves to worry about the world outside their immediate family. Contrast that feeling with eight years or so ago, when the majority of Americans were feeling upwardly mobile, and you see why Democrats may do pretty well in this upcoming election.

Edwards pledged aggressive investment in R&D for green technologies, saying "America ought to be leading the way in development of the technology that we need. If we do it smart, we can replace a lot of the manufacturing jobs that have been lost, in the places that have lost them."

The former Senator lauded the USW on its "Blue Green Alliance" with the Sierra Club, noting that cooperative efforts of this kind "can create one to two million new manufacturing jobs."

Finally, Edwards talked about the necessity for removing the yoke of ever-increasing healthcare costs from the corporate overhead. "Universal healthcare will make U.S. manufacturing more competitive by reducing the healthcare cost disparity between the U.S. and other countries," he said.

Like it or not, it's this type of practical reasoning, rather than the emotional appeals, that will ultimately get Edwards the converts he needs to succeed electorally.

Edwards On Trade Agreements, Chinese And Otherwise

During the Q&A session following the speech, the audience's focus seemed to keep returning to the slippery slope of today's flat earth, and while Edwards does see some dark side to free trade, he also strove to present a more centrist position than perhaps the steelworkers wanted to hear (hence the repeating of questions about China, tariffs etc.).

"The last thing we need is another trade agreement like NAFTA," Edwards said, adding "and the last thing we should do is give this President fast-track trade authority."

However, unlike those calling for a moratorium on new agreements and withdrawal from current ones, Edwards argued for a case-by-case evaluation. "In some cases, we need to hold off on making new trade agreements. In others, the agreements just need to be enforced. Others need to be revised."

The former Senator then went on to criticize what he considers to be the Bush administration's abdication of its trade enforcement obligations in favor of currying favor with foreign governments -- especially China. "This administration has been unwilling to hold China and other countries accountable when they violate the law, when they illegally subsidize and violate the terms of their agreements, when they prop up their currency. We have to be willing to enforce the agreements that we do sign."

The Bush administration has been completely unwilling to impose any kind of penalty on China, and an Edwards administration will."

When he was then pressed about protective tariffs for U.S. goods, Edwards warned that "Any time there is a clear violation of trade agreements, there is the possibility of tariffs." However, he also remarked that the situation shouldnt have to come to such drastic measures so long as the trade agreement itself is fairly written and is aggressively enforced.

More Notes/Quotes From Edwards

On Iraq, Edwards said that "America cannot impose security, so long as there is a foundation for violence." He would reverse the surge and "take out 40-50,000 troops immediately, and draw down the rest over time."

Edwards pandered to the union crowd on pension guarantees, saying "I think if we passed a law that says the chairman of the board's pension would be treated exactly the same as that of the lowest paid workers, wed see these pensions protected."

Although it received a mighty cheer from the assembled steelworkers, I doubt if that tune is going to resonate quite as well in the corner offices from whence the big campaign checks come.

On being the next President: "This is a moment in time when its going to become incumbent on us to change the course of history. To quote my friend George Becker, 'Failure is not an option.'" While it may not be an option, unless Edwards broadens his base beyond his populist pigeonhole, it's a distinct possibility.


Brad Kenney is an equal-opportunity cynic and an associate editor at IndustryWeek, based out of Cleveland. The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. Feel free to register your agreement or displeasure at our Reader Talk-Back forum.
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