Back in 2004, the Daily Howler usefully put John Edwards's National Journal composite ideological vote rankings in the public record
Here are the Journal's annual rankings since he arrived in the Senate:
1999: 31st most liberal senator
2000: 19th most liberal senator
2001: 35th most liberal senator
2002: 40th most liberal senator
2003: 4th most liberal senator
I point this out because I think it shows that John Edwards, once a DLC golden boy, experienced a meaningful ideological shift several years ago. This change can be measured in terms beyond stump speech rhetoric and campaign policy papers, and occurred before he began running for President in this electoral cycle. During his final years in the Senate, John Edwards was no longer a rising star of the center-right, but had instead become a reliable progressive vote in Congress.
Now, as happened back in 2004 when this report was released, some will criticize Edwards for undergoing a campaign conversion. The charge leveled against Edwards is, more or less, that he shifted from center-right positions that helped elect him to the Senate in North Carolina, to progressive positions that would help him with the national rank and file in the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination campaign. Basically, this charge paints Edwards as a pandering politician who only shifted to the left because of activist pressure, and not a true progressive at heart.
Personally, I don't read it that way, and I consider Edwards's shift to be genuine. For one thing, the shift is now five years old, representing more than half of the time Edwards has spent as a politician. In other words, he has now been a Progressive Democrat for longer than he was a New Democrat. Second, with less than ten years of experience, Edwards is a relatively new politician, and shifts of this nature are more common to people who are just entering the scene. Third, indications appear to be that it was Edwards was more conflicted during his earlier period of centrism than he is now. As examples, consider that Elizabeth appears to be a very solid progressive, that Edwards apparently didn't want to support the war but didn't have the courage of his convictions at the time, and that he has always appeared more comfortable since he found his "two Americas" rhetoric. I consider Edwards's conversion to be not unlike Gore's, where repeated object lessons of the heinous, bad faith, bankruptcy of American conservatism, and decided instead to just trust his gut, progressive instincts.
However, let's say that I am wrong, and spend a moment entertaining the possibility that Edwards has indeed undergone a five-year progressive shift in order to pander to the progressive rank and file. Even in that case, I am thrilled with his conversion. Over the past several years, I have tried to pressure politicians to shift to progressive positions on hundreds of occasions, with successes coming few and far between. After all the action alerts, phone calls, emails, letters, rallies and fundraising in which I and millions of other progressive activists have engaged, shouldn't we all expect that win over at least a few converts? Seriously, even if Edwards is just pandering, praise friggin' Jeebus that we finally scored a conversion with such a prominent Democrat. Isn't that exactly what we have been trying to do with Democrats? If progressive activists aren't happy that one of the six people who still has a shot at being our next President caved to our pressure on a wide swath of both policy and rhetoric, then what was the point of engaging in all of that activist pressure in the first place? It is almost even better this way, since Edwards is running a progressive campaign with the zeal of the newly converted, and since his conversion helps him recognize our power in a way that few other politicians ever will.
I think there are two possible views on John Edwards's progressive shift. On the one hand, the shift is genuine, and he has embraced his inner progressive. On the other hand, he bowed to progressive pressure in a way that no other politician has done in recent memory. So, we either have a true progressive, or someone who is more easily controlled by progressives than any other national politician in the last thirty-five years. I'll take that deal in a heartbeat, and gladly forgive any past history of DLC association. If we are progressive activists looking to make change, rather than to just say "I told you so," this strikes me as very much the scenario we would want.
Perhaps this is simply a long way of saying that I believe new progressive media and the emerging progressive grassroots will have more influence in an Edwards administration than in a Clinton or Obama administration. Now, given things like uber-blog proponent Peter Daou probably having a place in the Clinton White House, Obama's awesome open media policy, or simply Obama's exceptional activist strength, I could be wrong about this. However, there is something about a newly (five-year) converted progressive that appeals to me, even though I actually moved to the right in order to join the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. New converts tend to be the most zealous, the most willing to accept your arguments and the quickest to see the failings of the opposing camps. They are less entrenched in the politics of compromise and stalemate, and feel a more immediate sense of betrayal than those who always believed the other side was corrupt and wrong. Those are useful qualities, especially in a moment where a sweeping shift in power is possible.
The newly and solidly converted are the backbone of any major realignment, and I for one am glad to have them on board. Believe me, I have a burning desire to say "I told you so," but having someone else say "look, they told you so," is almost as good.