2008 campaign loses a voice for "the other America"

UPDATE: I cross-posted this at DailyKos and it's generating some interesting discussion.

It's fitting that former N.C. Senator John Edwards will be heading to New Orleans today to announce his exit from the presidential race. With Edwards' departure, the still-ravaged Gulf Coast will lose its most passionate -- maybe its only -- advocate in the 2008 campaign.

I remember talking with dozens of community leaders in New Orleans and Mississippi last summer, when we were compiling research for our in-depth study on the two-year anniversary of Katrina.

When the conversation turned to national politics, the only politician who got Gulf Coast residents excited was Edwards. "He didn't forget," said one community leader in Biloxi, Mississippi. "He's the only one who gets it," said a neighborhood activist in New Orleans. These were people who had largely given up on politics; living in poverty all their lives, and living in the devastation of the post-Katrina failed recovery, had convinced them it didn't matter. But Edwards had lit a spark.

That's exactly what Edwards hoped to do when he went to the Ninth Ward of New Orleans to announce his candidacy in December 2006 -- here's a video clip:

This past summer, Edwards showed it was more than just a campaign gimmick when he launched his "One America" tour in New Orleans and released a compelling platform for Gulf Coast recovery, which included many key proposals the Institute had been advocating.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Edwards was the only candidate who tried to show that what's happening in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast is everyone's issue.

Edwards' message was that Katrina is a symbol for a larger breakdown in our social contract. Just as the Gulf Coast has been left behind, millions of Americans sinking deeper in economic quicksand: inequality is among the highest it's been in our country since World War II.

Why didn't Edwards do better? Some factors he couldn't control, such as facing two media-savvy, fundraising-juggernaut, establishment-embraced campaigns in Clinton and Obama.

Despite his compelling message, Edwards and his campaign also had their own limitations (writer Bob Moser explored some of these in a 2005 piece in The Nation). I think Edwards often failed to make a compelling case about why his campaign to end poverty should matter to all voters.

The country has changed a lot since Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy launched their crusades against "The Other America" in the 1960s. One of the great ironies is that today, even the poor think of themselves as "middle class." Over 30 years of conservative ideology have enshrined the idea that we have no obligation to help what the bible calls "the least among us."

But whether or not it was a winner at the polls doesn't change the importance of Edwards' message: that we have a historic mission to help those left behind and struggling the most -- in New Orleans and beyond -- and that our country is stronger when everyone is doing well, not just the wealthy few.

For that alone, the 2008 campaign -- and the public debate about poverty and our country's political vision -- will be less in Edwards' absence.