Whenever John Edwards speaks, inquiring minds wonder why a man so bright and winning – and he is – can say things that at times seem imbecilic and trite. Case in point: His “acceptance” speech Wednesday night before the Democratic National Convention. I put the word “acceptance” in quotes because he delivered it before his name was officially was placed in nomination.
Three things stood out about his speech. The first was the insinuation that you and I are toast if we don’t get help from Team Kerry, and quick. We won’t get health care, our kids won’t get educated, the economy will fall into shambles, the world will turn on us, and our hopes and dreams will drain slowly, inexorably away.
Edwards has traveled the country describing America as a land awash in misery and in desperate need of two things: Hope (as in the Edwards refrain, “Hope is on the way!”) and a concerted Democratic effort to “lift people up.”
The “lift people up” line is especially telling. American lore traditionally has celebrated self-made men and women – a category, ironically, that includes Edwards – who make their way from poverty to prosperity not by means of a government program or loan, but through the sweat of their brows and the kindness of mentors and friends.
Nobody can guarantee success, least of all Uncle Sam, and sometimes the Fates mete out riches to perfect scoundrels and cads. Nevertheless, markets have a pretty good track record when it comes to rewarding people who provide things that we need or want. But Edwards wants listeners to believe that the government itself plays a fundamental role in making these good thing happen. Wrong-o.
This leads to a second point, which is that Sen. Edwards seems to regard a prosperous businessman as a greater threat to domestic tranquility than Usama bin Laden. His speech disparaged the wealthy, at one point promising to fob the costs of expensive new health care onto the “top 2 percent of taxpayers” – a group that not only includes a bunch of small, mom-and-pop businesses, but also pays (are you ready for this?) approximately 40 percent of the nation’s income taxes. The net effect of this plan would be to shut down a bunch of dry cleaners and convenience stores, send rich folks fleeing to tax shelters (the Kerry and Edwards families each have sheltered millions of dollars in income in recent years), and foist more of the tax burden not on the rich, but the middle class. After all, if the “rich” aren’t paying, somebody has to hold the bag.
This leads to a second point, which is that the Edwards stump speech’s insistence on two Americas – unequal systems of education, health care, retirement security, etc. – one rich and one poor, relies on myth and on the ugliest of human passions, envy. We don’t live in feudal England. Rich and poor aren’t fixed classes. In any given time, the vast majority of America’s “rich” come from backgrounds that just a few short years earlier placed them among the ranks of America’s most poor, and vice versa. Edwards also tries to whip up envy, hinting that prosperous Americans conspire to make others miserable, so that the only hope for social peace is to level everything out – make us equal in terms of income and happiness, regardless of how much or little we work. This is socialism with a smile, and it has an unbroken record of disastrous failure.
Boiled to its essence, the “hope is on the way” line gives the impression that Democrats view themselves as a party of pity, rather than hard work and ambition.
Finally comes the magic wand aspect of the speech. Edwards painted a picture of a word that can be transformed magically and instantly. Call it the Gomer Pyle effect (“Shazaam!” “Go…ooo…lllyy!”) Although his address teemed with examples, here’s the best: “We can ensure that Iraq’s neighbors like Syria and Iran don’t stand in the way of a democratic Iraq.” Period.
Shazaam! Just like that, two intractable enemies will become Kerry-hugging pals. Heck, if I had know it was that easy, I would have been with these guys all along! After all, Iran’s ayatollahs are playing a double game, holding al Qaeda toughs on the one hand, while also developing nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and the most sophisticated network on earth for encouraging and financing anti-American terror. Syria meanwhile may serve as the repository for billions in missing Iraqi loot, as well as selected refugees from Saddam’s regime, along with stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. One gets the impression, at least listening to John Edwards, that both nations will cry uncle the moment John Kerry takes the oath of office.
This shouldn’t surprise us, of course. Politicians love applause, and people love to hear someone promise to solve a vexing problem at a very low cost. (This is the driving theme of the infomercial industry.) There’s something addictive about the combination of a lofty promise and anticipated gratitude: If you tell folks what they want to hear, especially if, deep in their hearts, they know and fear that it’s utterly impossible, they’ll worship you – at least in the short run. The bad news is that they eventually expect you to deliver, and no human can deliver on the promises John Edwards made Wednesday night.
To recap: Edwards delivered his speech with terrific verve. He’s a charismatic and likeable guy, with a great family, a heartening and at times poignant life story, and a certain personal decency. All of which leads one to wonder: Does he really believe this stuff, or is he just riding the high of making other people, for one fleeting moment, happy?
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