John Edwards so wants to be President that he has spent the past four years campaigning for the job nonstop, practically living in Iowa since the 2004 election. He starts his second run for the Oval Office with a solid foundation: polls show him as one of the top Democratic contenders in the Hawkeye State, where voters liked his relaxed, guy-next-door manner and optimistic message in 2004 and have appreciated his many visits since. So what is the ex--North Carolina Senator and former vice-presidential nominee doing dumping the centrism that was key to putting the past two Democrats in the White House? Why is he tacking sharply to the left? As Jesse Jackson, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean could tell you, the most liberal of the Democratic contenders hasn't even won the nomination since 1972.
Although in 2004 he spoke eloquently of the "Two Americas"--rich and poor--if you looked at the fine print, Edwards backed ideas that originated in the centrist group that created much of Bill Clinton's agenda, the Democratic Leadership Council. Not this time. Many of the proposals for middle-class tax cuts from Edwards' first run won't be on his platform. Edwards says the country can't afford them and the bigger goals he wants to pursue. He says the problems in the U.S. are too pressing for the incremental solutions he proposed last time. So on the day he announced his presidential candidacy, Edwards boldly declared that reducing the deficit, a hallmark of the Clinton Administration, was less important to him than spending government money on, among other things, creating a universal health-care system and stopping global warming. His call to end poverty in the U.S. over the next 30 years by spending more than $15 billion each year sounds like a plan ripped straight from Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the kind of Big Government liberalism Clinton shunned. Clinton did all kinds of things to show he was pro-business, while last August in Pittsburgh at a rally sponsored by an anti--Wal-Mart group, Edwards blasted the company for not paying its workers enough. Although Edwards got much of his advice in 2004 from centrists like Bruce Reed, Clinton's ex-- policy guru, the Edwards '08 campaign is being run by David Bonior, a former Michigan Congressman who strongly opposed Clinton's welfare reform and free-trade deals in the 1990s.
The economic populism Edwards talked about in 2004 and has now fully embraced was a winning formula in 2006 for many Democratic congressional candidates--even after Republicans depicted them as big spenders. But presidential candidates are judged by different criteria. Moving to the left doesn't answer one of the main critiques of Edwards in the last campaign: his lack of foreign policy experience. And taking up liberalism may be particularly dangerous for Edwards now that Democrats control Congress, since a G.O.P. opponent could argue that voters would have no check on spending if Edwards were elected.