John Edwards is not running for the Democratic nomination as an anti-war candidate. Even in a campaign that has been defined by nothing so much as a constant process of redefinition on the parts of the major candidates, that would be too much of a stretch. After all, Edwards voted with more enthusiasm than most Democrats for the October, 2002, resolution that authorized George W. Bush to use force against Iraq. And long after another senator who voted for the war resolution, John Kerry, began to grumble about Bush’s deceptions and missteps, Edwards continued to defend his vote and the war.
But, while Edwards is not running as an anti-war candidate, he has begun to run as an angry-about-the-war candidate. And in the competition for the votes of Democratic caucus and primary voters, that anger is serving him well. The North Carolina senator ran a suprisingly strong second in last Monday night’s caucuses Iowa — a state where exit polls showed 75 percent of Democratic caucusgoers were opposed to the war in Iraq. And polls suggest that he could ride a last-minute surge into a solid third-place finish in Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire, a New England state where anti-war sentiments seem to be only slightly less pronounced than in the Midwest.
How is it that Edwards is doing so well with voters who think of themselves as anti-war? How was the senator able to elbow aside former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who spoke out against the 2002 resolution before the vote was taken, in anti-war Iowa? How is it that he now seems to be elbowing aside retired General Wesley Clark, another critic of the rush-to-war resolution, in New Hampshire? And why did the most genuinely anti-war candidate in the race, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, urge his backers in Iowa to caucus with Edwards?
One line of analysis holds that the war isn’t really that big an issue. Under this theory, Democratic caucus and primary voters are not all that interested in a war that has now cost more than 500 American lives, untold Iraqi lives, and tens of billions of U.S. tax dollars. But anyone who has followed the campaign knows that is not the case, as voters regularly question candidates about the war.
Another line of analysis holds that Democrats are so obsessed with beating Bush in 2004 that they are willing to overlook any flaw, even a disagreable stance on so pivotal a concern as the war, in their search for the most electable candidate. That may explain the rise of Kerry, a four-term senator who also happens to be a decorated Vietnam War veteran. But it doesn’t account for the rise of Edwards, a one-term senator who also happens to be a millionaire trial lawyer.
There is no question that Edwards works hard to presents himself as an “electable” contender. But that does not mean that he is eschewing appeals to anti-war Democrats. Indeed, while Edwards may not be an anti-war candidate, he has made complaints about the war central themes of his surging candidacy.