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.
When Edwards and his aides gave their campaign a makeover toward the end of 2003, they radically retooled the candidate’s message. At the heart of the new Edwards stump speech was an economic populist appeal designed to highlight the divide between “two Americas” — one where the rich get all the breaks, another where working families can’t get a break. New York Times columnist William Safire is right when he says that Edwards “has honed his ‘two Americas’ theme into the smoothest call for enforced leveling since Huey Long’s ‘every man a king.'” But but don’t assume that Edwards is only talking about domestic economics. That smooth speech also features an anti-war profiteering rap passionate enough to warm the hearts — and perhaps win the votes — of even some committed anti-warriors.
“We need to end the sweetheart deals for Halliburton and stop the war profiteering in Iraq,” Edwards began telling the crowds, making pointed references to Vice President Dick Cheney’s former firm but also to a list of other defense contractors that have contributed heavily to George w. Bush’s campaigns and that have profited heavily from his war.
While Edwards does not echo the pure anti-war rhetoric of a Dean, a Clark or, particularly, a Kucinich or an Al Sharpton, the North Carolinian does toss red meat to anti-war Democrats — highlighting the corruptions of empire that infuriate grassroots Democrats. It is easy, and quite possibly appropriate, to be cynical about the way in which Edwards now highlights criticism of a war that he has supported more consistently even than Kerry. But voters seem to be willing to forgive Edwards, a fresh-faced and energetic contender who exudes aw-shucks optimism on the trail, more than they do the other candidates.
The anti-war profiteering rhetoric helps to explain why Edwards ran almost as well as Dean did among Iowa Democrats who said the war was their top issue. It also helps to explain why the campaign of Dennis Kucinich, the most passionately anti-war of the Democratic presidential candidates, felt comfortable urging supporters of the Ohio congressman to form caucus-night alliance that aided Edwards.
In New Hampshire, Edwards has upped the ante. After President Bush used his State of the Union address to list 17 of the 34 nations that have committed troops to help the U.S. maintain the occupation of Iraq, Edwards went on New Hampshire Public Radio and condemned the president for claiming that he has assembled a genuine coalition to maintain the occupation of Iraq. For the most part, Edwards charged, the other countries provide little more than window dressing, while the toll of U.S. casualities rises and the cost to U.S. taxpayers mounts. (Like Kerry, Edwards votes against the Bush administration’s fall 2003 request for $87 billion to maintain the occupation, as did Kucinich. Of thr remaining contenders, only Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the candidate of Democrats who don’t really disagree all that much with Bush, voted for the spending bill.)
Over the weekend, as Tuesday’s New Hampshire vote approached, Edwards was adding to his angry-about-the-war repertoire. Edwards leapt on statements made by David Kay, the man entrusted by the Bush administration to head the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When Kay resigned Friday, he told the Reuters news agency that he had concluded there were no stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons to be found in Iraq. Edwards immediately called for an independent commission to investigate whether the Bush administration misled the Congress when the president and White House aides were making the case for preemptive war against Iraq.
“It’s a serious issue and it’s why I’m calling for an independent commission to investigate the discrepancy between what’s been found there and what we were told before,” Edwards said of the ongoing debate over Bush’s claim that the U.S. needed to attack Iraqi weapons — or, at the least, weapons that country was very close to developing — posed a genuine threat. Edwards still stops short of saying that Bush lied to the Congress and the American people; rather, he says, “That’s exactly why we need an independent commission to get to the bottom of this.”
Even as he was calling for the investigation, Edwards was ramping up that razor-sharp rhetoric about war profiteering. When Halliburton agreed on Friday to pay $6.3 million to the U.S. Army to cover for overbilling by a Kuwaiti subcontractor supplying U.S. troops in Iraq, Edwards said, “The American people know there is something wrong going on with war profiteering and Halliburton and the contracts in Iraq.”
“This has got to come to an end,” the senator told a crowd of 700 cheering supporters in Rochester, New Hampshire. Edwards promised them that, if elected president, he would examine all the contracts handed out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his aides “with a magnifying glass” in a hunt to halt “the fleecing of the American people.”