John Edwards 2.0

He's honing his stump speech and exhorting Democrats to stay the course. But can the twice-rejected pol hold the limelight until 2008?

Published April 26, 2005 7:28PM (EDT)

The first audience question John Edwards received, after addressing a packed house at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government earlier this month about his new anti-poverty campaign, had nothing to do with poverty. Instead it was about the subject nearly every Democrat has pondered since November 2004: campaign strategy. Considering how the election turned out, asked a young man describing himself as a former Howard Dean volunteer, what have you learned?

Edwards has heard this question before. In typical Edwards style, he already has a standard answer for it. "The American people want strength, conviction and a core set of beliefs that you will fight for," replied the former senator, presidential candidate and vice-presidential nominee. Discussing "how to maneuver our way through the political landscape," he added, is a fool's errand. "How about if the Democratic Party actually stands for the values the Democratic Party has always stood for?" asked Edwards. "We shouldn't change what we believe and what we stand for because of one election or even two elections."

In one sense, this is a political answer to a political question. Having experienced a campaign in which his running mate was battered with charges of inconsistency, Edwards is emphasizing that he, for one, is all about staying the course. But more generally, Edwards is right. After years of being on the defensive in elections, shifting this way and that and trying not to offend voters, the Democrats need to assert their values forcefully. One nagging question remains: What, exactly, do the Democrats stand for?

Articulating an answer -- the answer -- is what many political observers have argued the Democrats need to do, although none of them seem quite able to express it themselves. It is also the question John Edwards has taken up more directly than any other potential 2008 presidential candidate. "We stand for work and opportunity," Edwards said earlier this year. At times he has talked of creating an "opportunity society." At Harvard he spoke of allowing all Americans "the dignity and honor in hard work." The precise formula is a work in progress, but Edwards envisions a campaign in which the Democrats do not merely list good policy ideas, but emphasize the moral foundations of social justice, and depict the party's ideas as representing the essential American values.

Thus every time Edwards speaks, there are two talks being given: the one he is delivering, and the one he is crafting over time. When I saw Edwards at the Kennedy School on April 13, he delivered a decent policy speech, but not a superb one. He was warmly received by most of the standing-room crowd -- students, campaign workers, local politerati like Mary Beth Cahill and David Gergen -- though not everyone was impressed. One Kennedy School student I spoke to shrugged off the talk as political posturing -- though he admitted, "I'm a bit cynical" -- while an older woman was disappointed because she had hoped to hear a version of the superb "Two Americas" stump speech that vaulted Edwards to prominence a year ago.

But watching Edwards is like following a baseball team: The result may vary on any given night, but what matters is the long haul. In 2008, when George W. Bush will be a semipopular president leaving office for good, the next Democratic candidate will face a new challenge and a new opponent, but will still need a broad, compelling critique of Republican ideas and practices. Edwards may not find it, but then again, he just might.

Of course, during the current phony-war period when Washington etiquette deems it impolite for potential candidates to talk about their White House aspirations, Edwards has resisted saying anything definitive about 2008. Surely Edwards would need his wife, Elizabeth, diagnosed with breast cancer as the votes were still being counted last November, to regain her health before he gives the presidency another shot.

Whether Edwards should also defer to John Kerry's presidential plans, à la Joe Lieberman and Al Gore, currently fascinates Beltway insiders who have long forgotten the context of the Gore-Lieberman pact: the extraordinary 2000 recount, which, Democrats felt, wrongfully excluded Gore from the White House. At the moment, Edwards is deflecting all queries about Kerry. "I'll decide what's the right thing to do based on what's going on with my own family," he told George Stephanopoulos on ABC News' "This Week" in February.

Nonetheless, so far in 2005, Edwards has found the time to appear at state party dinners in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, picket with striking truck drivers in Iowa, and make appearances in urban centers of Democratic cash and influence from New York to Boston to Los Angeles. His One America political action committee is accepting contributions. Maybe he'll run and maybe he won't, but Edwards is laying the campaign groundwork, just in case.

In the meantime, Edwards has taken a position as head of a new institute tailored to his interests: the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received his law degree. Read into this what you want, but Edwards' position is described by the University as a part-time role, and it has a two-year term.

Still, Edwards only finished a distant second in the 2004 primaries, as the senior senator from North Carolina -- and then garnered mixed reviews during the general election, following his uneven convention speech, a stalemate in the vice-presidential debate, and his limited impact in the final months of the campaign. So how can Edwards improve as a candidate in 2008, holding no office and burdened with a losing record in presidential races? Indeed, Edwards is in the most unusual position of all the potential Democratic hopefuls: Outside of the formal structure of his own party, unable to burnish his political resumé by conventional means, and unable to use political office to gain media attention.

On the other hand, Edwards is now free to craft his own message, without senatorial duties or the weight of a long voting record that can be used against him. The king of retail campaigning could have, in effect, four years of retail politics ahead of him.

Edwards' Kennedy School talk about poverty was shorn of the crescendos of his stump speech. Fighting poverty, Edwards said, is "a moral choice," adding, "The content of our country's character is at stake." At the New School in Manhattan the next night, keynoting a conference on "fairness," Edwards also talked about economic injustice, but focused on tax policy, saying the Republicans were intent on upending "the very values that built America -- rewarding hard work."

To be sure, these talks contained plenty of echoes of the "Two Americas" speech, from calling the battle against poverty a moral one, to Edwards' claim that government policies should reward work, not just wealth: "Our opponents want to shift the tax burden from unearned income straight onto the backs of the working people," he said at the New School. Seasoned Edwards-ologists will recall the "bright light" he now wants to shine on poverty as the same beam he vowed to aim at lobbyists last year.

But instead of just dubbing certain issues moral causes, as Edwards did last year, he is now basing his claims on some first principles. Work, Edwards claims, is not just an economic abstraction but an inherently social activity. Work is how people provide for their families and, in many cases, define their civic participation. At Harvard, Edwards recounted the story of a Desert Storm veteran working his way back from destitution who told him, "All I want is to be a part of society." Contrast that with Margaret Thatcher's favorite piece of warmed-over conservative philosophy: "There is no such thing as society."

Conservatives, of course, make claims on society's behalf when it comes to cultural issues, but conveniently ignore the concept when it serves their economic benefit. In this vein, Edwards is trying to chip away at the right-wing notion that taxes somehow represent the government seizure of private money. "The truth is nobody earns his or her money alone," Edwards said at the New School. "They earn it thanks to America. They earn it because America protects private property, enforces contracts, and yes, punishes torts ... So nobody goes it alone, and everybody has a responsibility to help everybody get ahead." We are, Edwards wants Americans to remember, in this together.

If you don't accept that point, Edwards claims, you do not understand American history. At the New School talk, Edwards turned the tables on Republicans who respond to criticisms with shopworn claims that their opponents hate America. Abraham Lincoln, Edwards noted, was killed while carrying a clipping of his own pledge to maintain "a vigorous and just system of taxation." Conclusion? "So if you hate the income tax, blame Abraham Lincoln." We will hear that line again in the future.

Like Bill Clinton, Edwards wants to make clear he is not advocating a welfare state, but merely bringing everyone to the starting line. "What we want is an opportunity society where everyone who works hard and does right has the chance to get ahead," Edwards said in a February speech in New Hampshire. Unlike Clinton, Edwards seems eager to combat age-old shibboleths abetting conservative ideology -- like the myth that poor people are lazy, and thus not morally worthy of help. At Harvard Edwards described a meeting with poor families where he was struck by "how hard people wanted to work and how much they wanted to take care of their families. I know there's a stereotype that exists out there, but a lot of people who live in poverty don't fit that model."

In 2005, Edwards' religious references seem to have increased as well. "All of us know the Bible says the poor will always be with us, and some people use that as an excuse to do nothing," Edwards told the Harvard crowd. He now touts his work with faith-based anti-poverty groups, dating to his pre-Senate days.

Correctly or not, Edwards seems to accept the importance of so-called values voters to the 2004 outcome. And at a minimum, Edwards wants to collapse the distinction some Democrats draw between economic self-interest and moral issues. Puzzled that some voters sacrifice the former for the latter? At Harvard, Edwards asserted that just economic policy is a values question itself: "No one should ever doubt that the president's budget is a moral judgment."

How well this approach, which is still evolving, resonates with voters is another matter. It does represent, though, a departure from a recent Democratic habit of targeting voters with a menu of a la carte ideas. "I learned that you can never for a moment forget the big picture," says Edwards in "Four Trials," his campaign-year autobiography, describing his time addressing juries. Edwards' best quality as a political speaker is that he continually discusses policies in terms of their real-world effects and implications.

Indeed, Edwards rarely succumbs to what political analyst and blogger Mark Schmitt calls "policy literalism" -- the affliction causing Democrats to drone on about, say, the specific benefits of Social Security, without generally describing why Social Security is a good thing. Edwards justifies Social Security this way: "We believe that people should have the freedom to grow old with dignity without having to depend on their children."

Of course, many things Edwards says these days have a more prosaic purpose, and indicate his awareness of the intra-party tussle to come. He made an aside at Harvard to talk about the importance of unions -- almost every major labor endorsement went elsewhere during the 2004 primaries. Edwards is pointedly trying to use the Internet as a basic part of his activities, not only holding podcasts on his PAC site, but giving shout outs to bloggers who have been covering the Social Security debate, and using a prominent Democratic-friendly blog to explain his position on the bankruptcy bill. And whereas the 2004 Edwards was sometimes criticized for not knowing policy well enough, his work on poverty is now allowing him to discuss key issues with leading policy analysts and professors, and to drop casual references to scholars like "Bill Wilson" -- Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, author of "When Work Disappears."

So what are Edwards' chances? Plainly, much hinges on the crucial structural aspects of a primary campaign: fundraising, a good staff, fundraising, developing state organizations, fundraising, key endorsements and fundraising. More thematically, Edwards' decision to concentrate on domestic issues means he will be further identified with the themes he used in 2004, for better or for worse.

After all, when James Carville made a mantra of "It's the economy, Stupid," during the 1992 campaign, he was not just claiming Bill Clinton possessed a more popular economic agenda than George H.W. Bush. Carville's point was that voters were primarily concerned with economic issues. Since then, Democrats have not always grasped this distinction. And in 2004, Bush's margin of victory was almost certainly provided by his perceived strength on foreign-policy and national-security issues. The Edwards camp has hinted that he will be involved in some foreign-policy projects in the near future, but it's hard to imagine them being anywhere near as central to his concerns as his anti-poverty efforts.

For all the energy Edwards is capable of putting into a candidacy, his chances of success really depend on the circumstances surrounding the 2008 election. If the next campaign turns out like 1992, with hard economic times at the fore and world events in the background, then Edwards' well-honed calls to create that opportunity society could resonate long and loud. If the race is more like 2004, however, with foreign-policy concerns paramount, it may require more of him than just plain hard work.

By Peter Dizikes

Peter Dizikes is a science journalist based in Boston.

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