CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- "Sometimes," says John Edwards, "people need a breather." He is not talking about himself, although surely he needed one after his brief rocket ride through the upper atmosphere of national politics. That ride ended -- or perhaps paused -- when the Kerry-Edwards ticket lost. The people whom Edwards thinks really need a breather from presidential candidates are the voters.
But Edwards is roaming around, with 2008 in mind. His travels to more than 30 states have been organized around his interest in poverty. His Senate term ended nine weeks after the election and he went to earth here. While his wife, Elizabeth, continues to recover well from breast cancer, he is director of the new Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina.
Most Americans seem to regard as the only searing economic injustice the violation of their constitutional right -- surely it is in the Bill of Rights somewhere -- to cheap gasoline. But Edwards believes attacking poverty can be a politically energizing issue if, by stressing "work, responsibility, family," the attack "is built around a value-system the nation embraces."
In a speech shortly after Katrina, he rightly stressed the correlation of family disintegration -- especially out-of-wedlock births -- with many social pathologies associated with poverty. He said, "It is wrong when all Americans see this happening and do nothing to stop it."
But no one knows how to stop it. Anyway, spending at least $6.6 trillion on poverty-related programs in the four decades since President Johnson declared the "war on poverty" is not "nothing." In fact, it has purchased a new paradigm of poverty.
Edwards has a 1930s paradigm of poverty: Poor people are like everyone else, they just lack certain goods and services (housing, transportation, training, etc.) that government knows how to deliver. Hence he calls for a higher minimum wage and job-creation programs. And because no Democrat with national ambitions will dare to offend the teachers unions, he rejects school choice vouchers and says this: "Give working parents who are poor housing vouchers so they have a chance to move into neighborhoods with better schools."
But the 1930s paradigm of poverty was alive in 1968 when the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, created in response to urban riots, thought this would be an imaginative cure: government creation of 2 million jobs. This, at a moment when the unemployment rate was 3.7 percent.
The 1930s paradigm has been refuted by four decades of experience. The new paradigm is of behavior-driven poverty that results from individuals' nonmaterial deficits. It results from a scarcity of certain habits and mores -- punctuality, hygiene, industriousness, deferral of gratification, etc. -- that are not developed in disorganized homes.
Edwards, who does not recognize the name James Q. Wilson, may have missed this paradigm shift. Many people in public life, and almost all those with presidential ambitions, are too busy for the study and reflection necessary for mastering any subject.
In 2000, just his second year in the Senate -- his second year in public life -- Edwards was on the short list of finalists to be Al Gore's running mate. Edwards' appetite was whetted and he began the peripatetic scurrying around that preceded his run for the 2004 presidential nomination. He lost but was the last man standing against John Kerry, and he can torment himself with plausible thoughts about how, with this or that tactical move, he could have won the Iowa caucuses -- he finished second, with 31.9 percent of delegate strength to Kerry's 37.6 percent -- and the nomination.
When Democrats wonder what red states Hillary Clinton could turn blue in 2008, the wondering does not help Edwards, whose presence on the 2004 ticket did not sway his own state: In 2000, Bush beat Gore-Lieberman in North Carolina 56-43. In 2004, Bush beat Kerry-Edwards here 56-44. And Democrats know that Gore might now be in his second term if he had carried his home state.
Edwards says one lesson of 2004 is that presidential elections "are not issue-driven"; rather, they are character-driven and voters see issues as reflections of character. The issues "show people who you are." Perhaps.
But the idea that the candidate's persona is primary and that issues are secondary is a mistake made by some Democrats who yearn for another John Kennedy. He was a talented but quite traditional politician, whom many Democrats wrongly remember as proving that charisma trumps substantive politics. Edwards, who has been called Kennedy-esque, has a stake in that yearning.