Mark Shields: Who wrote the 2016 campaign script?

Mark Shields

It first hit me on a Tuesday morning in March at a Washington presidential forum sponsored by the International Association of Fire Fighters. One 2016 White House contender spoke the following: “We’ve seen over the past number of years two Americas emerge. At the very top, top 1 percent today, with the largest federal government we’ve ever had, the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our income (than at any time) since 1928.”

His words were frankly reminiscent of those I had heard 12 years earlier in Iowa from another dark-horse presidential candidate who would win the surprise endorsement of the influential Des Moines Register, which quoted him on the subject of the two Americas: “One America does the work, while another America reaps the reward. One America pays the taxes, while another America gets the tax breaks.”

In 2003, I saw a senator make affluent party audiences uncomfortable, reminding them of the moral outrage of their neighbors and fellow Americans “working full-time and living in poverty.” He was a freshman Democratic senator from North Carolina named John Edwards. Largely on the appeal of that message, the next July Edwards would become his party’s vice presidential nominee.

In 2015, the echoes of John Edwards’ “Two Americas” could be heard in the speech to the firefighters by a fiery conservative freshman Republican senator from Texas, Ted Cruz.

Ted Cruz isn’t the only conservative Republican running for president who borrows from John Edwards. Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning Kentucky senator, has urged that we honor Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “by uniting the two Americas into one America that includes justice for one and justice for all.”

2016 Democrats have taken more from Edwards’ book than mere rhetoric. Three presidential elections ago, the North Carolinian, himself a graduate of his state’s public universities, ran on making college free for all students who were willing to work; a dramatic increase in the minimum wage; and making it possible for Americans to buy into Medicare coverage for their health care; and against an “income inequality (that) is not healthy for America” where the “top 300,000 income earners in America now make more than the bottom 150 million combined.”

He proved himself to be a prophet without honor. John Edwards, while posing for pictures as the husband of the year to his wife Elizabeth, who was dying from breast cancer, had fathered a child during an extended affair with a campaign worker, persuaded a married aide to claim paternity for the child, and was tried and acquitted on one count (the jury deadlocked on five other charges) of violating campaign laws for allegedly misusing $1 million (mostly from heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon) in illegal campaign contributions to keep his mistress and child hidden and to pay their living expenses.

But now, four presidential campaigns later, I can still remember his holding the total attention of his audience with his reassuring voice: “We have a moral responsibility to help those around us who are struggling. … How we treat people in their time of need is the test of our character.” To those struggling, “We see you; we hear you; we embrace you, and we are going to lift you up.”

Any political future is obviously out of the question for John Edwards. And while he proved himself to be a fatally flawed messenger, Edwards’ message — even if unattributed — is very much alive and central to the campaign of 2016. But Heraclitus, of course, was right. Character is destiny.