Democrats in 2014: The party of John Edwards

From this new moralism—directed not against the undeserving poor but the undeserving rich—Edwards built the “Two Americas” theme that dominated his campaign. In Barack Obama’s 2004 convention speech, he spoke famously about overcoming America’s cultural and ideological divide: “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America … There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America … We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.” Democratic nominee John Kerry did too. (“Some just see us divided into those red states and blue states, but I see us as one America: red, white and blue.”) It was Edwards who depicted an America divided by class, with “two different economies … one for people who are set for life … and then one for most Americans, people who live paycheck to paycheck.

In the run-up to his 2008 presidential bid, Edwards became even edgier. At a time when poverty was considered an issue of marginal political utility, Edwards set up a research center on poverty at the University of North Carolina. He spent the summer of 2007 on an eight-state poverty tour meant to echo Robert Kennedy’s trip through Appalachia in 1968. He officially launched his campaign from New Orleans’ desperately poor, hurricane-ravaged Ninth Ward. At campaign stops, he sometimes brought on stage a man unable to speak for most of his life because lacked the health coverage to fix his cleft palate.