The John Edwards Experience

The North Carolina senator is more than just an optimist with great hair -- in fact, he might be exactly what Democrats need in November. But can the party's most personable candidate reach enough voters before it's too late?

By Peter Dizikes
February 1, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)
main article image

I first felt the full force of the John Edwards Experience when he walked over during the middle of his stump speech at a town hall in Rochester, N.H., and asked to borrow my copy of his position pamphlet so he could wave it before the crowd. Sure, it's a rote part of the Edwards speech, but let's not be cynical here: I like it when a presidential candidate stops talking to several hundred other people to ask me for a favor.

Then again, perhaps it was when Edwards brought the audience to its feet with one of his climactic lines: "If you give me a shot at George Bush, I will give you back the White House." Or maybe it was when he jumped into the throng of well-wishers afterward, pumping hands and signing autographs. Watching politicians is like scouting for baseball prospects: No matter how long you do it, you swoon a bit when you see real talent.


I'm hardly the first observer to be impressed by a firsthand look at Edwards, whose "Two Americas" speech has become a minor phenomenon in this primary season. James Carville has called it the best stump speech he has ever seen. Josh Marshall likened the effect of watching Edwards to being "hypnotized." And Republicans have taken note: One party operative told the Washington Post that Edwards could be "Clinton without the scandal -- John Kennedy, from the South."

Heady stuff for a candidate needing an infusion of cash and a win in South Carolina. Before too long, the Edwards speech could be like a museum exhibit that political tourists flock to see before it closes, as I did in Rochester last weekend. Still, Edwards' surge in Iowa and modest rise in New Hampshire, built on intensive retail campaigning, suggests that -- more than for any other Democratic candidate -- to know him is to like him. How does Edwards do it?

Most commentators have focused on Edwards' speaking skills, honed over years as a trial lawyer. But Edwards has also inverted the purpose of the standard political address, normally intended to get the audience to feel good about the candidate. The "Two Americas" talk also makes Edwards' audience feel good about itself. Sometimes he is blatantly hokey -- "I believe in you" is one of his concluding lines. But Edwards uses subtler tactics as well, creating a feeling that he -- and you -- can confide in each other.


Edwards starts by introducing the idea of the two Americas: "One for all those who are in positions of power and privilege ... and one for everybody else." Clearly, we're all in it together. But Edwards quickly extends the level of intimacy in the room. Let's discuss a political taboo, he says: the poor in America.

"I understand why people don't talk about it," Edwards states. "For the most part these folks don't vote. This issue would be way down the list of anybody's poll issues." Translation: I respect you too much to pander. Edwards continues: "The reason we should talk about the 35 million Americans who live in poverty is because it's wrong, and we have a moral responsibility to do something about it." A similar riff about racism ensues.

These early sections of the speech warm up the audience but seem to leave his critics cold. Who in a Democratic primary would oppose ending poverty and racism? When speaking of "moral responsibility," however, Edwards is using a line that could play better in a general election: Secular liberals will hear it as a standard pitch for social justice, whereas more religious voters, presumably in Southern or Midwestern hunting grounds, may well understand the phrase as an affirmation of Christian ethics. Similarly, another phrase Edwards likes to use, "working middle-class families," neatly bridges a class divide that Al Gore never rhetorically resolved during the 2000 campaign.


Edwards' speech is, in fact, roughly as substantive as anyone else's. In short order, Edwards makes clear that he wants to revise the Bush tax cut, introduce an ambitious college-education subsidy scheme, see the Patients' Bill of Rights into law, and introduce programs giving people incentives to make down payments on homes and accumulate savings. His policy cake just has a much thicker honey glaze surrounding it.

Besides, other subjects in the Edwards speech feel weighty to his audience. Take bankruptcy and personal finance, for example. Families that were once well off, Edwards announces, "are saving nothing. They're going into debt. The problem that creates is, if they have a serious illness, or a layoff, or some kind of financial problem, they go right off a cliff." Here Edwards is being more daring. Bankruptcy remains a kind of social taboo in America, far more prevalent than you'd know from listening to television pundits.


That's why you can always hear the crowd's approval when Edwards says he wants to crack down on "predatory lenders, payday lenders, and these credit cards companies that are fleecing the American people, every single day." He continues: "I know that some of you have seen these ads. Don't you love these? ZERO PERCENT introductory offer. Right. How long does that last? And then the rate goes to 18, 19 percent. We can ban these kinds of abuses." The senator may not be revealing his inner policy wonk, but talk about television ads is a language voters understand.

All this leads to the climactic part of the speech, where Edwards makes clear that his life story is one of defeating naysayers, first in the courtroom, now in politics. His refrain here -- "I beat 'em, and I beat 'em again, and then I beat 'em again" -- has been widely quoted. What's less remarked upon is the way Edwards quickly links this riff back to the audience.

"You can all relate to this," Edwards usually says. "You can ask yourself, in your own mind. How many times has somebody said to you that you can't do something? That you're not quite prepared for this, you don't have the right training, or are not experienced enough?"


This is the heart of his speech, I think, the part that leads to the buzz people get from hearing Edwards speak. Is John Edwards qualified to be president? Well, are you qualified for that job you want, but don't have? In making the case for his own candidacy, Edwards makes the case for your advancement, too. Howard Dean may tell his supporters, "You have the power," but John Edwards makes them feel it on personal level, with an expertise self-help gurus would envy.

Of course, hypnosis wears off eventually. But Edwards' ability to connect with voters seems borne out by the numbers -- and not merely by his success in Iowa. In New Hampshire, exit polls showed that almost half of Edwards' support came from voters who made up their minds in the last three days before the primary. Like Bill Clinton, Edwards tends to fare better with women than men. Part of his support simply comes from his personal appeal.

Superficial as that may be, it's an element of electoral success the Democrats would be unwise to dismiss. After all, if presidential elections were decided simply by the issues, the Democrats would have an incumbent right now. Most polls in 2000 showed that on issue after issue, voters favored positions closer to the Democratic platform. This apparent edge added up to less than the sum of its parts for Gore. In John Kerry, the Democrats may have themselves a winner. Or they may have another Gore-type candidate: A more experienced and knowledgeable politician than Bush, with Vietnam service as a bonus, but an unavoidable awkwardness on the stump.


This is to say nothing of geography, which is virtually a raison d'être of the Edwards candidacy. Perhaps -- as Kerry has been musing aloud -- the Democrats can win without the South, by adding, say, Ohio from Bush's haul in 2000. Then again, not only have population shifts made Gore's states worth seven fewer Electoral College votes in 2004, but -- as no Democrat seems willing to mention -- Gore carried four of them (Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, Wisconsin) by only minuscule margins. Perhaps making North Carolina blue is a good plan after all.

Optimists and sunny-personality types -- Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton -- fare well in presidential elections. Edwards, channeling Clinton, says his campaign is "based on the politics of hope." Edwards may need more than hope to get through the primary season -- but it's a good quality to exude in November.

Peter Dizikes

Peter Dizikes is a science journalist based in Boston.

MORE FROM Peter Dizikes

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Democratic Party John Edwards