Invisible Bush

Edwards skillfully reaches out to the common woman -- a "mother ... at the kitchen table" -- but avoids assigning blame for her anxiety.

Published July 29, 2004 3:30PM (EDT)

The Democrats are walking a tightrope of anger management. Even the slightest murmur against Bush is depicted by the Republicans as blind rage, irrational raving and left wing. The Kerry campaign has correspondingly tamped down such displays. Bush's name goes unmentioned in major speeches from the podium. The rhetoric operates by inference and indirection; the audience is assumed to carry the story in its head. A few gestures and words are cues to a shared but unstated understanding. Bush is the invisible man at the convention.

John Edwards' acceptance speech for his vice presidential nomination on Wednesday night revealed the difficulties and perils of the balancing act. The surface seemed smooth, glistening and crystalline. Edwards' talent is that of the consummate lawyer making a summation to a jury of ordinary citizens. He rehearses until his long speech flows from him like a natural river. His particular skill in the primary campaign was to fashion a message of traditional Democratic economic and social grievance that manifested as a paean to optimism. Before the convention delegates, Edwards enveloped his tried-and-true "two Americas" speech with a tribute to Kerry's leadership qualities, incorporating them as new elements of brightness.

Edwards' manner is more that of the motivational speaker than the minister. He establishes through his personal autobiography that he is the common person he is addressing, creating a unity between himself and the crowd. His language is anecdotal but utterly unadorned. He makes no literary allusions. Unlike Bill Clinton, another Southerner, he borrows no references from biblical scripture. His talk is without political liturgy of any kind. It is stripped to plainness, a Protestant cross without any figure on it.

But there is a tension behind his accessibility. Edwards tells of the trials and tribulations of those falling behind no matter how hard they work, who need better education, health insurance and job security. "You don't need me to explain this to you, do you? You know exactly what I'm talking about. Can't save any money, can you? Takes every dime you make just to pay your bills. And you know what happens if something goes wrong, if you have a child that gets sick, a financial problem, a layoff in the family -- you go right off the cliff. And when that happens, what's the first thing that goes? Your dreams. It doesn't have to be that way."

But Edwards doesn't explain why it is that way. He offers a tale without a plot, describes effects without causes. It is a mystery play about George W. Bush.

Republicans, of course, charge him and other Democrats universally as possessed by little but visceral anger. They dread his negative numbers being run up, so they try to deflect the Democrats from doing so by projecting onto them the negative campaign the Republican themselves are mercilessly running.

Edwards' response is to cast the contest as a cosmic battle of the forces of darkness and light, poles of positive and negative, optimism and gloom. "John's been traveling around the country," he said of his running mate, "talking about his positive, optimistic vision for America ... But what have we seen? Relentless negative attacks against John. So in the weeks ahead, we know what's coming, don't we? Yes, more negative attacks. Aren't you sick of it? They are doing all they can to take the campaign for the highest office in the land down the lowest possible road."

Edwards vouched for John Kerry the war hero and presented his own senatorial credentials on national security, but his subliminal appeal is to a crucial swing constituency: the kind of women he went to high school with in North Carolina, working and lower middle class, too busy to pay close attention to the news, but anxious about almost everything.

He breathed life into this ideal woman, who wants someone to express her desire for empathy and rescue. "Tonight, as we celebrate in this hall, somewhere in America a mother sits at the kitchen table. She can't sleep because she's worried she can't pay her bills. She's working hard trying to pay her rent, trying to feed her kids, but she just can't catch up. It didn't used to be that way in her house." Now, Edwards created a man for the woman. "Her husband was called up in the Guard. Now he's been in Iraq for over a year. They thought he was going to come home last month, but now he's got to stay longer." With that stroke, Edwards turned the turmoil and trepidation of Iraq into a quiet crisis of the middle class. "She thinks she's alone," Edwards continued. "But tonight in this hall and in your homes, you know what? She's got a lot of friends ... Hope is on the way."

Edwards has sidestepped being the vice presidential candidate as relentless attacker. With his friendliness he has homed in on the swing female voter. But the heart of the election remains Bush's trust and credibility.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

MORE FROM Sidney Blumenthal

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

John Edwards