What was the at the heart of former senator and vice-presidential candidate John Edwards political message has come full circle. While Edwards embarrassed himself, and sullied his name the theme he embraced has been picked up by others. The message of economic inequality has launched New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and other Democrats who understand that issue is one that matters as public policy and when fashioning a winning coalition at election time. It must be painful for Edwards to watch others use the issue without giving him any credit for helping frame it years ago.
It was Edwards, during his 2004 presidential run, who returned the focus to inequality by flipping Clintonism on its head. In his 1992 campaign, Clinton had talked a lot about “rewarding work.” Democrats, he insisted, would help people who “played by the rules”—for instance, via an expanded earned income tax credit for the working poor—but they would stop coddling welfare recipients. In 2004, Edwards took that judgmental tone but redirected it. In his narrative, the people disrespecting work were not welfare mothers but trust funders, people who lived off their investments rather than the sweat of their brow.