The Case for Edwards

Election '04

If it's true that John Kerry has narrowed his vice presidential choice down to Dick Gephardt and John Edwards, he should pick Edwards.

Although his emergence as the best stump speaker came too late for him to win either Iowa or New Hampshire, Edwards was a popular and dynamic campaigner who built a strong following last winter during the Democratic primaries. By early March, when Kerry had locked down the nomination, I was convinced that Edwards would make a superb running mate.

After hearing Democratic pollster Celinda Lake's presentation at the Take Back America conference last month, I am even more certain of Edwards' value to the Democratic ticket, because the North Carolina senator is both Kerry's safest and most aggressive pick all rolled into one.

A Safe Bet

During the primaries, Edwards refined his message and presentation to near perfection. Seeing him up-close for the first time at a small event in Iowa Falls last January, it was obvious how well Edwards connects with audiences, especially in close, personal settings. His charms derive in no small part from his country-lawyer style and uplifting biography.

Plus, as I remarked from Iowa at the time, Edwards fixed the problems with Al Gore's ambiguous "people v. the powerful" message from 2000 by offering a purer dichotomy with his own, "two Americas" theme. Whereas some suburban professionals were understandably unclear as to which side of Gore's people/powerful divide they resided, Edwards's seamless version left no ambiguity: You are either among that select group of Americans with the luxury of fancy tax lawyers and special shelters when April 15 rolls around each year, or you suffered under the tax rules that apply to "everybody else"; you either had private insurance and access to the best specialists in the country, or you grappled with the spiraling costs and administrative hassles so familiar to "everybody else." And so on.

Because he energized a larger bloc of devotees than any other candidate save Howard Dean, Edwards is also generally acceptable to wide swaths of the center-left Democratic community. If reports about Kerry's private conversations with some labor leaders are accurate, even Rep. Gephardt's incomparable labor credentials are no hurdle to Kerry picking his fellow senator over Gephardt (labor wants to win as badly as any other constituency in the "anybody but Bush" movement). Edwards' Democratic Leadership Council credentials, coupled with his courageous anti-poverty themes, make him exactly the sort of pan-ideological ambassador who can repair any residual, center-left tensions with the Democratic Party (that is, beyond the helpful contributions of a certain 43rd president).

If Edwards actually entered the 2004 presidential race to position himself for the vice presidency this year or another presidential bid later, his plan worked. He not only sharpened his campaign skills, but in the process essentially vetted himself among both the media and party regulars. Though Kerry will lose the extra boomlet of attention that would attend a "surprise" veep pick, Edwards remains Kerry's best pick precisely because he is the safest bet.

An Aggressive Pick, Too

Yet, especially in terms of political geography and demography, Edwards would also be a very aggressive pick.

As fellow Gadflyer David Lublin and I argued in the American Prospect last February, the North Carolinian would be a superb asset to the Democratic ticket in swing states outside the South that will decide the outcome. Because key suburban and rural constituencies within border and Midwestern states like Ohio, West Virginia, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri bear striking similarities to constituencies south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Edwards can help Kerry swing undecided voters with southerly sensibilities in these states.

What Lublin and I wrote still applies: "Edwards' greatest asset is that he has the legitimacy to persuade voters in these states to focus on economic issues instead of the social and cultural wedge issues upon which Bush hopes people will cast their votes...His biography also gives him greater credibility in delivering the more subtle message that socially conservative whites ought to be thinking about kitchen-table economic issues."

Celinda Lake's survey findings offer further validation of Edwards' demographic appeal to important constituencies that will decide the election.

Lake identifies five "Republican opportunity" groups – that is, five demographic groups that lean Republican but are potentially winnable by the Democrats this year. They are (with share of total electorate in parentheses): devout Catholics (9 percent); white married moms (10); older, white blue-collar men (10); white post-graduate men (6); rural white women (12).

Whether Kerry's Catholicism is help or hindrance, the first GOP opportunity subgroup is his alone to win or lose. But Edwards' style and story could lure key segments of the other four groups to the Democratic ticket in sufficient numbers to push Kerry over the top in key states. To wit:

- Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, are ambassadors ideally suited to approach suburban, white wives because, aside from his trail lawyer background, the Edwards family typifies the modern, exurban family that is leaning ever more Republican;

- The senator's stories about how he paid his way for school emptying tractor trailers in 100-degree heat allow him to connect with blue-collar men striving to make a better life for themselves and their children;

- As a still-young professional, Edwards can explain to successful white male professionals why conservative policies used to appeal to them are deceptive, shortsighted distractions from the more truly future-oriented education and investment programs to which conservatives mostly pay lip service; and

- Finally, with his southern and bootstrap biography, Edwards can bring to rural American audiences his personal experiences, rather than mere platitudes, in ways few politicians can.

Notice, too, the gender specificity of these persuadable groups. As Lake points out (to great laughter from audiences), 73 percent of husbands say their wives will vote the same way they will, yet only 49 of their wives say the same about their husbands. There's a growing disconnect within households, even rural households – a tension that John and Elizabeth Edwards, especially in tandem, could be very useful in exploiting.

The New Big Dog

Asked by CNN's Larry King last week whether he had any advice on running mates for Kerry, former president Bill Clinton demurred. But Clinton noted the obvious: That as the only presidential decision a challenger gets to make, Kerry's choice of running mate will be scrutinized as an important indicator of his leadership capacity.

There is some scuttlebutt in Washington about Kerry either not liking Edwards, or worrying that the more junior senator will somehow eclipse him. (Sidebar: Let not Ralph Nader's recommendation last week that Kerry pick Edwards be disregarded on account of its source.) I suspect the rumors about Kerry's wariness toward Edwards are based more on conjecture than fact. But even if true, Kerry would impress fellow Democrats, his media detractors, and at least one former president – not to mention he'd prove himself a New Big Dog who is unfazed by petty grievances – by picking Edwards.

Because Edwards, who is simultaneously the safest and most aggressive pick, is Kerry's best option.

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