Can Clinton beat Edwards in the populism primary?

In a spacious Hilton ballroom yesterday, surrounded by middle-aged construction workers with their arms folded and collars unbuttoned, Joe Biden is barking into his microphone. "With or without your endorsement," he declares, "I'm going to be the best friend labor has ever had in the White House!" It's an outlandish claim--FDR? Harry Truman?--but not out of place. After all, the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD) has invited the various Democratic presidential candidates to their annual convention in Washington, D.C., so that 2,500 labor bosses from across the country can size them up. In the 2004 primaries, many of the building trades unions backed Dick Gephardt early on, only to watch his campaign fizzle in Iowa. They don't plan on making the same mistake twice. "This is only intended to be a first impression," BCTD President Edward Sullivan insists, as the day draws to a close. This time around, they're going to make candidates fight for their support.

It's fair to say that organized labor is enjoying a renaissance within the Democratic Party: The 2006 midterms ushered in a fresh class of populists--Sherrod Brown, Jim Webb, Heath Shuler--who toe the labor line on issues ranging from trade to health care to CEO pay. Nancy Pelosi advanced card-check legislation--which would make it easier for unions to organize--through the House as part of her "100 Hours" blitz. Even the Democratic Leadership Council, once the scourge of liberal interest groups everywhere, has started touting the role unions can play in reducing income inequality. But what does this dynamic mean for the presidential race? John Edwards, after all, has long cornered the market on economic populism--what with his "Two Americas" speech and work on poverty over the past few years. And, if the BCTD event is any indication, the rest of the candidates are still figuring out how to play catch-up on this front.


Edwards speaks first at the convention, and is obviously the favorite son. The crowd offers up a thunderous standing ovation, the labor leaders onstage all pump his hand enthusiastically as he approaches the podium, and he can barely say five words without being drowned out in applause. Edwards, more than any other candidate, has a talent for rendering working-class concerns in vivid strokes. He sketches a story about an uninsured working man coming home after a second shift to feel his son's fevered forehead. If worse comes to worst, Edwards notes in hushed tones, "This man may have to go to a hospital and beg for health care." His voice rises like an indignant preacher, and his fist jabs the air: "Beg for healthcare--in the United States! It doesn't. Have to. Be. This. Way." A roar seizes the audience. After promising that, as president, he would sign card-check legislation and prevent businesses from hiring permanent workers to replace strikers, Edwards notes that he's the only candidate with a "detailed health care plan." The crowd swoons.

It's a tough act to follow. Going into the event, one might have predicted that, if anyone could match Edwards's soaring rhetoric about poverty and middle-class anxieties, it would be Barack Obama. He goes up last and instantly strikes a self-deprecating note: "We're at that point where everything that needs to be said has been said ... but not everyone has said it." The crowd laughs warmly, but they want more than charm, and Obama can't really deliver. Unlike Edwards, who can speak engagingly about the card-carrying union members in his family, Obama has to resort to tales of laid-off factory workers and distressed mothers he's met on the campaign trail. "I try to imagine what that's like," he says quietly. The audience members seem sympathetic, but aren't teetering on the edge of their seats in quite the same way.

Like all of the candidates at the forum, Obama makes mention of the standard laundry list of proposals that construction unions want passed into law--a crackdown on illegal immigrants, support for the Davis-Bacon Act, an increase in the minimum wage. But he ticks the items off much too hurriedly for anything but polite applause. Unlike Edwards, he sounds like he's merely reciting--trying to say the minimum necessary to receive the AFL-CIO's support without appearing too beholden to a liberal interest group. Indeed, he seems more at ease discussing world-historical themes--he notes, to enthusiastic applause, that the civil rights movement was "not a celebration of African-American history, but a celebration of American history"--than organized labor specifically. It's a good-but-not-great sell for a crowd that wants William Jennings Bryan, not Abraham Lincoln.

Most of the other candidates do no better. Despite his pledge to be labor's best buddy, Biden spends the bulk of his 15-minute speech detailing his plan for partitioning Iraq. To be sure, the war ranks high on the BCTD's list of concerns--most of the candidates vow to end the war, and when Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner addresses the audience in the morning, he gets shouted down angrily for trying to connect Iraq to September 11--but Biden overdoes it. Chris Dodd, for his part, looks like a grizzled union boss and argues that labor should back the guy who appears most sympathetic to their concerns, but he doesn't generate much excitement. (He does, however, mention his 32 years in Congress at least 32 times.) The same goes for Bill Richardson, who makes a point of sending a shout-out to each and every BCTD leader--as if he's taking an exam--and touts his (admittedly impressive) record as a labor-friendly governor of New Mexico. Dennis Kucinich, meanwhile, vows to repeal NAFTA and pull the United States out of the WTO, ranting fast and furiously. The crowd rises to its feet, but the hoots and hollers come alongside pitying laughter.


In the end, perhaps only Hillary Clinton figures out how to outmaneuver Edwards, and she proves the sleeper hit of the convention. Standing before a star-struck crowd of roofers and masons snapping cell-phone pictures, her speech starts out stiffly--hardly a match for Edwards's table-pounding. But Clinton has a secret weapon: She knows labor policy better than any of her competitors--even Edwards--and knows exactly what issues matter most to the BCTD, down to the last detail. She promises to apply prevailing-wage laws to all federal infrastructure projects, pledges to fix the "inaccurate" wage determinations in the Davis-Bacon Act, and rails against businesses that mislabel workers as independent contractors. It might sound like dull wonkery, but to the construction workers present, it's a big deal. Clinton gets far and away the loudest applause line of the entire conference when she declares that she will soon introduce legislation to give "meaningful access to contractor payroll records."

Various profiles have noted that, during her two Senate campaigns, Clinton won over upstate New York by immersing herself in policy minutiae and impressing farmers with her detailed knowledge of, say, milk prices. Clearly she intends to woo labor leaders in much the same way. "She knows all our passwords," whispers one flabbergasted ironworker seated behind me. Clinton may not send shivers down the spines of her listeners when she talks about the uninsured in America or recycles lines from her husband's 1992 campaign. ("If you work hard and play by the rules, there will be a place for you.") But she seems to know how to navigate old-fashioned interest-group politics better than most.