America in 2026
By BOB HERBERT
Have we become too selfish and cynical? Or is the U.S. — despite being shaken by terror and distressed by the unending conflict in Iraq — ready to roll up its sleeves and renew its commitment to some of the goals and themes that once formed the basis of the American dream?
John Edwards is betting on the latter. In a major speech today at the National Press Club in Washington, Mr. Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who was John Kerry's running mate in the 2004 presidential election, will ask:
"What kind of America do we want — not just today, but 20 years from now? And how do we think we can get there from here?"
It's a speech that's different from the poll-tested, freeze-dried political pap we've come to expect from politicians. For one thing, Mr. Edwards, who's part of the growing pack of Democratic marathoners seeking the party's 2008 nomination, wrote it himself. For another, he unfashionably (and unabashedly) appeals to the better angels of the electorate.
"It's wrong," he says, "to have 37 million Americans living in poverty, separated from the opportunities of this country by their income, their housing, their access to education and jobs and health care — just as it was wrong that we once lived in a country legally separated by race."
In an echo of the can-do spirit that was characteristic of the post-World War II period, Mr. Edwards asserts that with the proper leadership, the United States can "restore the moral core and legitimacy that has been the foundation of our influence" abroad, while at the same time tackling tough issues here at home: poverty, the need for greater energy independence and a fairer shake for all Americans who have to work for a living, including "the forgotten middle class."
In his draft of the speech (and in a telephone interview yesterday), Mr. Edwards said that at least 40,000 American troops should be brought home from Iraq immediately, and further reductions should continue steadily, "so that the Iraqis can take control over their own lives."
He says, at the top of the speech, that "our military power is fortunately strong, and we must keep it that way." But he also says, "I want to live in an America that has not sacrificed individual liberties in the name of freedom; where, in the fight to preserve the country we love, we do not sacrifice the country we love; where we don't make excuses for violating civil rights, though we understand that the test of liberty is in the moments when such excesses almost sound reasonable."
Since leaving the Senate, Mr. Edwards has served as the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He believes the number of Americans in poverty can be cut by a third over the next 10 years, and that the U.S. should work toward the complete elimination of poverty over the next three decades.
He will say in the speech that one of the reasons so many working Americans remain trapped in poverty is that work often doesn't pay enough. "A single mom with two kids who works full time for the minimum wage is about $2,700 below the poverty line," he says. "In 2005, while corporate profits were up 13 percent, real wages fell for most workers."
He believes, as do most Democrats, that the minimum wage must be raised, and that many more workers should be given a real opportunity to organize and bargain collectively. "Unions helped move manufacturing jobs into the foundation of our middle class," he says, "and they can do the same for our service economy."
He also believes — and this is certain to be controversial — that federal housing policy needs to be overhauled and a greater effort made "to integrate our neighborhoods economically."
"If conservatives really believed in markets," he says, "they'd join us in a more radical and more sensible solution: creating one million more housing vouchers for working families over the next five years. Done right, vouchers can enable people to vote with their feet to demand safe communities with good schools."
To remake American society in a way that is broadly beneficial (and that re-establishes our prestige and influence abroad) will require not just leadership, but sacrifice — something that is seldom asked of most Americans — and a real commitment to working together to solve the nation's biggest challenges.
However one feels about his specific proposals, it's worth paying attention to the fact that Mr. Edwards is asking Americans to step up and meet that commitment.