The choice of John Edwards as No. 2 on the Democratic ticket is the first great decision of the Kerry presidency -- a mature, self-confident choice that bodes well for the Kerry campaign as it kicks into high gear.
It wasn't based on looking at a map and trying to figure out who could deliver the most Electoral College votes. It wasn't based on who Kerry felt most comfortable hanging out with.
It was based on who was the best choice for the country.
Instead of picking a running mate who had the strongest résumé, Kerry picked the one who had the strongest vision for the country -- a vision that can help Kerry bring heart and soul back to American politics.
Here are five things about John Edwards that should be sending a cold shiver down Karl Rove's spine right about now:
1) He can help Kerry make this campaign about what kind of America we want to live in -- a campaign not just about policies and programs but about our fundamental values as a country. Throughout his primary campaign, Edwards showed an uncanny ability to frame his positions in the language of morality and traditional American values.
"I believe we can build a better life for our families," he said during a Democratic primary debate. "But it has to be based on the values of hard work and responsibility, not accounting tricks and corporate greed. I want to bring your values, the values of Main Street America, to Wall Street and then to Pennsylvania Avenue. I want to give this White House back to the American people."
This is a linguistic battlefield that has been dominated by the right since the 1960s. Edwards' ability to speak to core American ideals like hard work, fairness, faith and family -- the values that built America -- will help Kerry reclaim key words and concepts like "morality" and "responsibility" from the recklessly irresponsible and grossly immoral GOP.
It's not by accident that this is the first quality Kerry cited when announcing Edwards as his running mate: "John understands and defends the values of America. He has shown courage and conviction as a champion for middle-class Americans and those struggling to reach the middle class."
George Bush wants to define this campaign in terms of right and left. John Edwards will help make sure that it comes down to a discussion of right and wrong.
2) Edwards' core theme of the two Americas -- "one for the powerful insiders, and another for everyone else" -- helps sharpen the differences between the two tickets, and underlines that far from being a uniter George Bush has been the ultimate divider. As Edwards evocatively paints it, Bush has created two school systems, two healthcare systems, two economic systems, two tax systems, and even two systems of government, all designed to benefit "those who never have to worry about a thing" -- and at the expense of ordinary Americans.
Edwards has also shown a commitment to putting poverty fighting front and center in his campaign, sending a message that dates back to the beginnings of this country: We are all in the same boat together.
"I want to take a moment to talk about something you're not hearing presidential candidates talk about enough," he said in his signature stump speech. "The tens of millions of Americans who live in poverty. We pass them on the streets in our cities. They are the families that crowd our shelters and turn to our small-town churches for food. In the America you and I build together, they will be forgotten no more."
This powerful and patriotic populist vision stands in direct contrast to the "every man for himself" rallying cry of the conservative movement, which is epitomized by Grover Norquist and the Leave-Us-Alone Coalition, founded on a toxic mix of tax cuts and gutted social programs.
As Edwards put it during his presidential run (and will no doubt repeat many times now that he has a much bigger megaphone), "2004 is a make-or-break election because we need to create one America again. And that is the one thing George Bush will never do. Dividing us into two Americas -- one privileged, the other burdened -- has been his agenda all along."
3) Without wearing it on his sleeve, Edwards' comfort with matters of faith, morality and religion will allow Kerry and the Democrats to make an unabashed appeal to the millions of Americans whose spiritual beliefs are central to their lives.
The Bush Republicans have made it clear they believe that God is on their side, blessing everything from the war in Iraq to the president's multitrillion-dollar tax cuts. Edwards' central message of fairness and economic justice puts the question in play: Which is the true political morality? Opposing gay rights and abortion or heeding the biblical admonition "We shall be judged by what we do for the least among us"? During the Democratic debates, Edwards was asked if, like Bush, he felt God is on America's side. He responded by quoting Lincoln, who, when asked in the middle of the Civil War to join in prayer that God is on "our side," replied: "I won't join you in that prayer, but I'll join you in a prayer that we're on God's side."
Edwards' championing of those left behind will help America reclaim the moral high ground we've abandoned in the last three years.
4) Edwards can help Kerry ride the wave of idealism that was unleashed after Sept. 11. Rare among populist politicians, Edwards radiates optimism and inspires hope. "This election is not about what we are against," he said before the Iowa primary, "it is about what we are for ... We offer a new beginning for America based on hopes, dreams and endless optimism -- not fear, greed and attack politics."
This spirit is the perfect antidote to the pessimism the GOP is desperately trying to tag Kerry with. And it doesn't hurt that Edwards has got charm and charisma to burn, is the most natural politician the party has to offer, has a great story of humble beginnings and triumphing over adversity and personal tragedy, and can move an audience to tears with his heartfelt oratory.
5) Edwards has made a very successful career out of eating folks like Dick Cheney for lunch in courtrooms all across America. He'll know exactly how to wield Halliburton like a stiletto. I give Cheney 30 minutes before he drops his first F-bomb. I can't wait.
The Republican attacks on Edwards as "unaccomplished and inexperienced," "out there in left field" and, above all, "Kerry's second choice," sound like wishful whistling past the graveyard. Edwards' selection has not only energized the Democratic base -- which was pretty energized anyway -- it has, more important, the potential to arouse the dormant passion of the 50 percent of eligible voters who have given up on voting.
All in all, not a bad payoff for a fallback plan.