TCS Daily

John Edwards and the Strangest Mutation of Liberalism Yet

By James Pinkerton - July 7, 2004 12:00 AM

How to sum up John Edwards' selection as John Kerry's vice presidential running mate? It's good news for trial lawyers, bad news for blue collar workers -- and oh yes, bad for Hillary Clinton. And as for the impact on George W. Bush? That's hard to know, although this much is sure: Dick Cheney is going to have a tough debate this fall; the media will have called it for Edwards.

Yet beyond the spin of the moment, vice presidential selections are often momentous, because of what they suggest about a possible future president's policies.

The selection of a vice president often indicates a hinge, of sorts. For example, in 1940, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dropped John Nance Garner of Texas as his vice presidential running mate after two terms, he chose instead, as Garner's replacement, Henry Wallace of Iowa. In so doing, the 32nd President undid decades of Democratic tradition, which held that the party's presidential candidate would be from the north, while its vice presidential candidate would be from the south. That year-in-year-out running-mate balancing act reflected the power reality inside the country at the time, as well as inside the party. In the years when memories of the Civil War were still strong, it was understood that no Southerner could win the White House, and yet Southerners, who provided the bulk of Democratic votes from 1868 to 1936, wanted representation at the national level. So they usually got the #2 slot.

But in 1940, an increasingly liberal FDR chafed at the influence of Southerners, especially on racial issues. So he resolved to make a point: that the Democratic party was now a Northern-based New Deal party, a party that could win without pandering to the South. And it did; FDR won the electoral college in 1940 by a 449 to 82 margin. In other words, he could have lost every Southern state that year and still won his third term in the White House.

The following year, 1941, the Roosevelt-Wallace administration issued Executive Order 8802, which declared, "There shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries and in Government, because of race, creed, color, or national origin." And so the Fair Employment Practices Commission, the grandfather agency of today's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was created. These actions were the first presidential directives on race in seven decades; it would not have been possible to make this forward motion civil rights with a segregationist, such as Garner, a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Which is to say, vice presidents can matter a lot, not only for who they are, but for what they symbolize.

So in 1940, FDR opened the door to civil rights. And in 2004, who did Kerry open the door to? That's easy. He has opened the door to a "minority" of a very different kind; he has made welcome to the plutocratic trial lawyers, inviting them to sit near -- and someday on -- the Democratic throne. To be sure, trial lawyers have long been big players inside the Democratic party, but now they are at the center. That proximity to power bodes well for the tort bar -- but poorly for most everyone else, including the traditional Democratic constituencies that the trial lawyers have shafted.

As for the man who didn't get the VP nod, Dick Gephardt symbolized the old Democratic party, the party of working men, of "horny handed sons of toil." Old Dick wore his blue collar credentials on his sleeve -- "I'm the son of a Teamster," he would always say -- and spent his three-decades in Congress agitating for traditional working-class concerns, such as national health insurance and trade protectionism. But Kerry passed on him, because he lacked pizzazz.

Instead, he chose Edwards, who polished his pizzazz before juries. Now we know that Court TV is the new farm team of Democratic politics.

Edwards likes to emphasize his own humble origins--the son of a mill worker, the first in his family to go to college--but whereas Gephardt was a workhorse, toiling away on bills to help his constituents, Edwards was a showhorse, making speeches, not laws. Here's the way that the Republican National Committee summarizes Edwards' output on Capitol Hill. "Since joining the Senate in 1999, Edwards has been lead sponsor on:

  • 74 bills, NONE of which has emerged from Committee for a floor vote.
  • 78 amendments, 23 of which passed the Senate.
  • 6 resolutions, 4 of which passed the Senate.
  • No legislation Edwards has been lead sponsor on has become law."

Are any of these facts wrong? If so, the Kerry-Edwards campaigners are invited to call me to secure a correction. But here's a bet: I won't hear from them campaigners, because everyone in Washington knows that Edwards spent his first and only term in the Senate running for the presidency -- or maybe it was the vice presidency that he always had a realistic eye focused upon.

Edwards' gaze on the national brass ring might explain why his skimpy legislative record was also a left-leaning record. His lifetime rating from the Americans for Democratic Action is 81 out of 100, while he was rated by the nerdily prestigious National Journal as the fourth-most liberal senator in 2003, behind, of course, John Kerry, who was rated the #1 liberal.

Yet casual news consumers might be excused for not knowing anything about either man's liberalism. The media have spiked this un-Heartland-y reality. As noted by Media Research Center, Harry Smith of CBS characterized Kerry's Tuesday morning speech in Pittsburgh as "right down the middle." Smith said:

"It's all about the swing voters. It's all about the independents. Some people theorize that the election could come down to the votes and decision of fewer than one million people. And that's where Kerry made his pitch today, was right down the middle."

Got that?

Aside from the outright favoritism of many reporters -- so watch out, Dick Cheney -- one other factor that helps Edwards secure his good press is his image as a scrappy populist. Indeed, Edwards is no limousine liberal, a la Kerry. He's something much different -- and much more dangerous to American institutions.

Most Americans have figured out by now that they don't like conventional Teddy Kennedy-like left-activism. They know that big programs with big budgets, wrought by politicians with big heads, rarely work out as expected; usually these big bills are swamped by even bigger unintended consequences.

But the trial lawyers represent a whole different strain of activism, which people haven't really figured out yet. Unlike public-policy-preneurs, the new breed of legal sharks are private-sector entrepreneurs operating within the government, although with few checks and balances. These lawsharks learned their profit-maximizing craft not in a legislature, but in a law school. Nobody votes for them, except for juries, and yet most people instinctively cheer for them, because these attorneys pose as champions of the "little guy," and people haven't yet figured out that a) other little guys end up paying the bills for such lawsuiting; and b) the legal tycoons typically keep a third of what they rake in. In other words, we are all poorer so that a few trial lawyers can get really rich.

But until that weird process of upward-redistribution is better understood, Edwards can pose as Mr. Underdog. And he can take pride in his "accomplishments" -- not legislating in the Senate, but litigating in the South, most notably against doctors and auto companies. According to The New York Times, from 1985 to 1997 he racked up $175 million for his plaintiff-clients from 1985 to 1997; his personal fortune is estimated by North Carolina Lawyers Weekly to be at least $38 million.

To be fair to Edwards, he's not just in it for himself; he's in it for other trial lawyers, too. In the Senate, he was Their Man. Not only did he oppose caps on malpractice awards, he supported legislation to allow new lawsuits against HMO's. In addition, at a time when people worried that Y2K disruptions would derail the economy, Edwards made it harder to fix those Y2K glitches by opposing liability limits on Y2K lawsuits. After 9-11, he even helped defeat an amendment to the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002, an amendment that would have limited on trial lawyers' ability to sue in wake of a terrorist attack. In other words, Al Qaeda attacks the US -- and after the attack, the trial lawyers can go in to shoot wounded companies.

Not surprisingly, the tort-buccaneers have rallied to Edwards. According to the Center for Public Integrity, eight of the top ten contributors to his presidential campaign were law firms. Indeed, according to the Federal Election Commission, throughout his career, Edwards has received some $10.3 million from trial lawyers.

But of course, $10.3 million is a pittance to the tort bar. According to the Manhattan Institute:

"'Trial Lawyers, Inc.' behaves like the biggest of businesses, as it generates cash from traditional profit centers (like asbestos, tobacco and insurance), explores potential growth markets (like lead paint, mold and regulated industries), and develops new products (like suits against the fast-food industry).

"The lawsuit industry is also increasingly sophisticated in targeting its customer base through the Internet and traditional media outlets, and its government relations and public relations arms are the most powerful of business lobbies

"Out of total U.S. tort costs of over $200 billion -- more than 2% of GDP -- Trial Lawyers, Inc. grosses $40 billion per year in revenues, or 50% more than Microsoft or Intel and twice those of Coca-Cola."

These big-dollar figures made by big-bucks barristers have taken the favored vehicle, the Democratic party, light-years away from its origins among the sons of toil; the new leading men are sophists of tort. In fact, the Edwardsite trial lawyers have wiped out jobs in whole factories and industries, from tobacco to aviation to construction, as they made their millions and billions.

But the blue collars -- and ex-blue collars -- cheer for Edwards & Partners anyway, in part because they like a good partisan brawl against the "Big Boys." And so when Edwards pledged last year to carry the fight to "Big Corporations, Pharmaceutical Companies, Big Insurances Companies, Big HMOs," he got a big ovation. But one day, when a lot of those "bigs" are out of business, even the rowdiest and most populist Americans will come to realize that a paycheck is better than a cheerline. And the choice to back rich trial lawyers at the expense of rich job-creators will be seen as the strangest mutation of liberalism yet.

To be sure, Edwards' us-against-them message will play poorly in some circles. The business community, knowing what it would mean to have a trial lawyer in the White House, is likely to unite all the more tightly against the Kerry-Edwards ticket.

But of course, the business community has been uniting against the trial lawyers for a long time, and to little effect; "tort reform" has been stalled in Congress for decades. So today, litigation, far more than legislation or regulation, is reshaping American business -- for the worse, hurting innovation, job creation, competitiveness, and shareholder value.

It might be small consolation for some conservatives to know that one big victim of Edwards' ascension is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has ascendant ambitions of her own. If Kerry wins, Vice President Edwards will on the national stage seemingly forever, even as his inside minions make who-knows-what appointments and emendations to obscure codes in a bid to boost Trial Lawyers, Inc. And even if Kerry loses this year, Edwards will likely be able to use his name ID-boost to great advantage in the quest for the '08 presidential nomination.

But of course, if Edwards blazes the trail for the trial lawyers, suddenly Hillary's effort to make the world safe for more bureaucrats might not look so bad by comparison.


TCS Daily Archives