KNOXVILLE, Iowa -- John Edwards is angry, and he wants people to know it. Republicans complain of Democratic class warfare all the time. It's usually an overwrought charge. But Edwards is the real thing. His message is resentful, confrontational and paranoid, verging on the openly hateful. And Iowa audiences are loving it.
Edwards is like a stand-up comedian who has honed his act down to the most effective material. In the case of the comedian, all that's left is laughs; in the case of Edwards, almost all that is left is unbridled hostility. His campaign pitch is a well-polished mailed fist aimed at the gut of the establishment, defined by Edwards as heartless, money-grubbing corporations.
"This corporate greed is killing the middle class, killing American jobs and it is stealing your children's future," Edwards tells a rapt crowd of a couple hundred people in the lobby of a high school here.
The reason we don't have universal health coverage, according to Edwards, is "very simple" -- the drug companies and insurance companies oppose it. In fact, everything is "very simple" to him. In his down-home Manichaean vision, dark corporate forces are responsible for everything he doesn't like.
This is a worldview that doesn't allow for legitimate differences of opinion. On the one side is "the glorification of corporate greed," and on the other are the people willing to fight it -- everyone in between is either a tool or a coward. Battle lines drawn, Edwards' vision bristles with evocations of power. The people will have to wield the "sovereign power" of the country against corporations that will only "give their power away when we take their power away from them."
The traction he's been getting is a sign that Iowans weary of the lover Obama have been drawn to the hater Edwards. The former North Carolina senator doesn't invoke hate, but he comes close. He tells his audience FDR said that "those people who hate me, I enjoy their hate. Bring it on." Hate me and I'll hate you in return, Edwards seems to be saying.
If Obama talks of cross-partisan understanding, Edwards talks of revenge: "What we have to do with these people is we have to treat them exactly as they have treated you." Which will have to be quite excoriating since corporations are supposedly impoverishing ordinary people and stealing their children's future. Edwards assures the audience that his crusade isn't driven by cool rationality, but by gut-level emotion: "It is very personal to me."
It is rare indeed to hear a politician brag about his fistfights as a child as Edwards does to establish his credentials for the "epic fight" ahead. Persuasion and negotiations are anathema to him and he explicitly forswears them: "People say to me, as president of the United States I want you to sit at a table and negotiate with these people. Never." He's willing to talk to Iran, but not to Pfizer. One is only a terrorist-sponsoring enemy of the United States, after all, and the other is a drug company.
For all its populist grievance, Edwards has a certain conservative appeal based on filial piety. He brings up his grandparents and parents constantly, and frames his fight against corporations in terms of all the striving our forebears have done to secure a better future. He complains that the mill where his father worked has now closed. In a change election, Edwards sells a kind of nostalgia, as if fighting the corporations will end the capitalist churning that so discomfits his listeners.
Edwards is in the protectionist, us-versus-them tradition of Dick Gephardt and Pat Buchanan, populists who thrived in the Iowa caucuses and then sputtered out. Ultimately, Edwards offers a sectarian message with limited appeal to an upwardly mobile country that is richer and, for all the dissatisfaction with Washington, more content than when FDR was welcoming the hatred of plutocrats. But, for now, some Iowa Democrats are willing to give hate a chance.