Right Hook

Conservatives are surprisingly kind to Edwards, although Jonah Goldberg calls him Quayle-lite and Taranto blasts his lack of military experience. But others seem prepared to desert Bush in November.

Published July 7, 2004 5:51PM (EDT)

The most surprising thing about John Kerry's selection of John Edwards was the admiration a number of opinion-makers on the political right expressed for the North Carolina senator.

The newly minted ticket has disillusioned Republican Andrew Sullivan practically sounding like a card-carrying Democrat. Perhaps Sullivan intends to follow through at the voting booth on his recent hints of abandoning a war-bungling, anti-gay Bush administration.

"Well, this is just what I had hoped for -- and it's easily the best choice available to Kerry, who now passes his first presidential judgment test. Edwards is uplifting, while Kerry is a downer; he can touch the Democrats' heart, not just their minds and their wallets; he's fresh and youthful in a way that will only contrast sharply with Cheney; he can speak -- and we need more in politics who have his kind of rhetorical skill; he's positive, which is important in a rancid political atmosphere. Substantively, I don't like his background among the trial lawyers, nor his protectionism. But I've come to think of him as a decent man, who shied from the easy snarl in the primaries, and who believes in this country's promise in ways that some on the left have lost touch with. He's the anti-bitterness candidate. And his presence will change the dynamic. The trouble with Bush's and Cheney's fundamental position -- you cannot trust anyone else to wage this war -- is that it must inevitably conjure fear and danger. Americans also like broad grins and happy futures. Edwards will give them plenty."

London-based foreign policy wonk Gregory Djerejian, author of the Belgravia Dispatch blog, argues that Edwards is weak on national security. But he agrees with Sullivan that Bush-Cheney '04 would do well to take a cue from the happier, shinier Dems.

"I'm not one of those who think that Edwards will look like a cool as a cucumber Kennedy figure to a sweaty, Nixonian Cheney. Cheney will do just fine thank you -- while pointing out Edward's obvious weaknesses in the national security/foreign policy realm. But, bursts of profanity aside, Cheney may want to spend a few days on the beach before the debates, you know, hanging out -- the better so as to project a chiller vibe.

"All well and good to exude macho-gravitas and national security street cred -- but an avuncular (full-blown) smile here and there won't hurt either. Americans do like a winning smile -- a certain breezy optimism has always been part and parcel of the American national character. Put differently, Bush/Cheney can't just run on fear."

Admiration for Edwards aside, the expected offensive against him began in earnest. Opinion Journal editor James Taranto sees a close parallel between the various candidates' military records, arguing that Bush and Cheney deserve a pass in light of Edwards' own youthful lack of service.

"The choice of Edwards also shows the phoniness of the Democratic attacks on President Bush for serving in the Air National Guard and on Dick Cheney for not serving in the military. Unlike Kerry, who by the way served in Vietnam, Edwards, who by the way is the son of a mill worker, has no military experience. The New York Times notes that in a January debate Kerry made fun of Edwards's lack of military experience: 'When I came back from Vietnam in 1969, I don't know if John Edwards was out of diapers then.'"

National Review's Jonah Goldberg charges that Edwards is Dan Quayle-lite when it comes to national security.

"One need not go trolling through Nexis for quotes from prominent Democrats (and pundits) insisting that Dan Quayle lacked the qualifications to be vice president. He was elected to two terms in the House and two terms in the Senate (the youngest man ever elected to the Senate from Indiana). Quayle's foreign policy credentials simply blow away Edwards' by comparison. Whether foreign policy experience was more important in the declining days of the Cold War were more or less important than in the early days of the war on terror is an interesting debate ...

"Edwards is among the worst choices possible if the issue this fall is national security and terrorism. He's not very sharp on foreign affairs. He has very little experience (Please, stop citing junkets to Afghanistan as a qualification!). If the Bush campaign can really make this election about national security, Edwards may not become a full-blown liability, but he might not make much of an asset either."

Meanwhile, InstaPundit's Glenn Reynolds thinks Edwards makes vice presidential rival Dick Cheney a major GOP liability.

"I have to say that I think the Republicans' attacks on Edwards as a 'sleazy trial lawyer' will misfire. That kind of thing appeals to the base, but most swing voters won't share that instinctive hostility -- and harping on it too much will just make the Republicans look like tools of Big Business ...

"My own prediction, by the way, is that at an opportune moment Cheney will drop off the GOP ticket for vague medical reasons and be replaced by someone whose selection will make a splash."

Reynolds also sees a certain Green appeal in the Edwards pick.

"Many journalists and bloggers will be thanking Kerry for picking someone who ran in the primary, as it makes all those archived Edwards items useful again. It's a pro-recycling ticket!"

Jacob Levy, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and contributor to the Volokh Conspiracy blog, argued in May that the Bush camp was in "bafflingly deep denial" about losing Libertarian swing voters in '04. He says that Edwards for veep makes the Kerry ticket a lock for him, in light of the Bush administration's exceptional incompetence in policymaking. (Note to New York Post: Levy also says that a Gephardt pick would've been a Kerry deal-breaker for him.)

"This is really the first presidential race of my adult life in which I've had a very strong commitment about which major-party candidate was the lesser evil. I've had leanings in previous races, but they were uncertain, and typically mitigated by a sense that both major-party candidates had crossed some threshold of unacceptability. This time, it seems very clear to me that the Bush Administration has failed basic tests of competence in policymaking and execution, and of trusteeship of long-term interests like alliances and trade negotiations and moral credibility. I expect to dislike an awful lot of John Kerry's policies. But I don't expect that kind of failure of the basic responsibilities of the office. Four or eight or twelve years ago, I guess I wouldn't have known how important I found those considerations, as I hadn't seen a president who had failed along those dimensions. Now I have, and I do."

"Narrow-minded nationalists"
Though by no means a die-hard conservative, Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and occasional contributor to neocon journals, detailed her own disillusionment with the Bush White House in a recent essay in the New Republic. She's incredulous that an administration stacked with Cold War veterans could be so myopic when it comes to battling the rising threat of radical Islam.

"Incredibly, given their backgrounds, top Bush officials still seem not to understand that, like communism, radical Islam cannot be defeated with military power alone. Like communism, radical Islam is an ideology -- one that people will die for. To fight it, the United States needs not just to show off its firepower, but also to prove to Arabs that Western values, in some moderate Islamic form, will give them better lives. The war on terrorism cannot be a narrow American or American-Israeli military struggle, or we will lose it. Like the cold war, the war on terrorism will be over when moderate Muslims abandon the radicals and join us.

"Mistakenly, I assumed this was what the president meant when he talked, in that vague sort of way, about 'democracy in the Middle East.' The fact that he was vague didn't bother me, since this president is vague about a lot of things. But I should have been warier since, in this case, his vagueness was not just a personality tic or a speech impediment, but a sign of a deep lack of seriousness."

Applebaum sees a dangerous provincialism percolating the administration's hollow rhetoric.

"The truth, of course, is that, for all its talk of universal human rights, this is not an administration that actually perceives itself as a part of something greater than the United States. For all of its talk about spreading American values to benighted foreigners, this is not an administration that even likes foreigners. It never occurred to me that American troops would arrive in Baghdad and have absolutely no idea what to do next, or who was important, or who was on their side. But then, I hadn't realized that the Pentagon leadership had no interest in or knowledge of the Iraqi people. I thought these were cold warriors, whereas in fact they are narrow-minded American nationalists, isolationists turned inside out."

The rise of "black blog ops"?
In a recent column for the Weekly Standard, right-wing pundit Hugh Hewitt raised some interesting questions about the ascent of the Web as a source of political news and information.

"Like a reverse Atlantis, a new archipelago of opinion and news providers has risen up from nowhere to drive stories and news cycles. So we should be asking about the potential for deception in the format. The web is widely used and relied upon. It would not be hard for intelligence services from around the world to build blogs with an intent to deceive or manipulate, putting out solid content to gain an initial audience before using it to disseminate disinformation intentionally.

"Similarly, the inevitable backstab blog has to be on some political consultant's mind. Get it started and growing as a pro candidate X blog. Build an audience via tried and true techniques -- including the purchase of blog-ads -- and then, late in a campaign, have the blog turn on candidate X. If any of the high profile lefties at work today --the Daily Kos or Atrios, for example -- were to suddenly turn on Kerry, citing implausibility fatigue, for example -- that would be news and a blow to Kerry. Could Kos really be working for Rove? The costs of starting a blog are so low that the mischief potential is quite high ...

"It is a brave new blogging world, and mischief beyond the easily spotted inanities of the MoveOn.org crowd will no doubt follow."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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

2004 Elections Dick Cheney John Edwards John F. Kerry