A Dud of a Debate


It was as if all the candidates were aiming for the same bar: okayness. In part, that was due to the debate’s structure: four journalists asking questions of the candidates that permitted no give and take between the contenders. It was also due to what has become known as the Lesson of Iowa: going negative hurts. Few elbows were thrown. No spitballs were hurled. Candidates stuck to their stump speeches. Edwards noted that people are “hungry for change in America. They’re hungry for change in Washington, D.C. And the truth is, the truth is, that I’m somebody who’s been in Washington long enough to see what’s wrong with it and how it needs to be changed.” Kerry maintained he wanted to take on “special interests” and that he had national security credentials that would allow him to go toe-to-toe with Bush. Joseph Lieberman stressed his “values” and his enthusiastic support for the war in Iraq. Clark pushed his experience as an executive and professed his fealty to Democratic Party principles. Dennis Kucinich blasted the Nafta trade accord and insisted he was the most antiwar candidate, claiming his plan to end the U.S. occupation in Iraq could bring American troops home within 90 days and noting that Dean would let U.S. forces remain there perhaps for years.

Edwards, the onetime superlawyer, botched a question about the Defense of Marriage Act, mischaracterizing it completely while stumbling through his reply.

One reporter asked Edwards to identify the “critical point” in the debate. He accurately replied, “I’m not sure there was a critical point.” Edwards did gripe that the format of the debate had prevented him from talking about “a lot of issues that affect people’s lives so voters could see what I would do.” I asked him to tell us what issues he had in mind. He replied, “What the country is hungry for is an optimistic, positive vision of hope.” And he went on to repeat his standard line that there are “two different Americas,” one where people have health care and win big under the tax system, one where people do not.

But, I pressed him, what specific issues should have been addressed. He responded by noting that he had proposed banning campaign contributions from lobbyists, implementing more extensive disclosure of lobbying activity, and ending the revolving door between government and lobbying firms. I gently reminded him that he had mentioned all of this during the debate. But he noted he had not had the chance to discuss his plan to improve public schools with bonus pay for teachers in tough school districts. And he repeated a concern he had raised during the debate: none of the candidates is talking about the 35 million Americans who live in poverty. More time in the debate, he noted, was devoted to discussing gay marriage than this troubling situation. “The debate may have been helpful for people to get a general impression of us,” he remarked. “But the substantive differences in our views was hard to tell.” Still, he added, “I was the candidate who presented an uplifting message of hope.”

The Populists of New Hampshire


Senator John Edwards of North Carolina is the Polite Populist. On Friday, he visited the Page Belting company in Concord. It was there, almost a year earlier, “where people first saw the Edwards magic,” one of his aides told me. She was referring to a session in which Edwards met with some of the firm’s employees and the workers became teary while discussing the economic hardships they and their families faced.

Edwards was back now to have a similar discussion with two dozen Page workers. But this time they were surrounded by 150 members of the press. Edwards reeled off his “two Americas” speech, which he has refined to a smooth and seamless indictment of Bush’s Washington. There is one America where people get all the health care they need; then there’s the America with a health care system that doesn’t work for many and is controlled by insurance companies and HMOs. There is one America where affluent communities have wonderful public schools; one America where the schools are troubled. “We shouldn’t have two public school systems,” Edwards remarked. There are “two governments” in the nation’s capital: “one for the insiders…whatever is left is for you.”

Edwards did not raise his voice. He did not show anger. This son of a mill worker who became a millionaire superlawyer displayed earnest indignation, quiet outrage. He adopted a “get this” tone. He told the employees, “What goes on in Congress is that you have the lobbyists for the big drug companies and they’re all over the place and they come up to members of Congress and say, ‘Can you help us on the [Medicare prescription drug] bill?’…And then [the members] says, ‘Are we going to see you at the fundraiser tonight.”

The Page Belting workers did not respond with “amens.” Instead, they knowingly nodded their heads–especially when Edwards referred to predatory credit card companies that sock it to consumers who don’t read the fine print. He came armed with supposed solutions, such as banning campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists. “The Washington lobbyists are taking your democracy away from you,” he commented, “and we ought to stop it.”

Edwards never got mean or dark. He loaded his pitch with feel-good, can-do optimism, insisting his message is “based on politics of hope, based on the politics of what is possible.” He noted, “You deserve a president who can make you feel good about the future, good about yourselves again.” Then Edwards left in his campaign bus, dubbed the “Real Solutions Express”–which is not to be confused with Kerry’s bus, “The Real Deal Express.” Will Edwards’ kinder, gentler populism play? He does have one heckuva pleasant and persuasive manner. New Hampshire voters–and Democrats elsewhere–looking for populism with a smile and a down-home drawl will be tempted.

A No-Issues Contest


There is no war of ideas occurring in the New Hampshire primary. There is barely a skirmish. The four top contenders–Senator John Kerry, former Governor Howard Dean, retired General Wesley Clark, and Edwards–each bemoan the influence of special interests in Washington (particularly its impact upon the Medicare prescription drug legislation), call for universal health care coverage, praise the potential of renewable and sustainable energy, promise to reverse George W. Bush’s environmental policies, support abortion rights, and vow to de-unilateralize foreign policy. There are policy disagreements. Dean wants to repeal all of Bush’s tax cuts; Kerry and Edwards want to dump only those that benefit wealthy taxpayers. Dean reminds his supporters that he opposed handing Bush the authority to invade Iraq while Kerry and Edwards voted to grant Bush that power. Yet on the question of what to do now in Iraq, the four candidates agree on the need to internationalize the occupation and try to coax other nations to contribute more troops and money….

Of the major contenders, Edwards has the best delivery and the best thematic approach. With passion and sincerity, he critiques the existence of “two Americas”–one for the well-to-do families that have access to quality health care, benefit from the existing tax code, and send their children to good schools; one for everyone else. Under the rubric of turning the “two Americas” into one, Edwards, the son of a mill worker, assails Washington lobbyists, empathizes with middle-class families squeezed by economic pressures, vows to restore America’s image abroad, and advocates policies that can return hope to stressed-out, low- and middle-income families. And he has the healthiest glow of all the candidates–he practically shines–and the best gestures, which come from his days as a trial lawyer. This pitch neatly weaves in his own personal up-from-the-working-class history. He has only been doing his “two Americas” routine since early January, and it may well be responsible for his second-place finish in Iowa.

Edwards has put together an attractive package. Is it flying off the shelf? The election will tell. His events appear to have the most uncommitted voters in attendance. That may signal movement in his direction. Or it might merely mean that the undecideds already have enough information on Dean, Kerry, and Clark and are giving Edwards a last look before rendering a final judgment.

Ten Talking Points on New Hampshire


Performance doesn’t matter. Of all the candidates, Senator John Edwards delivered the best stump speech, in which he decried the existence of “two Americas,” one for the rich and one for the rest. It was the best formulation of the anti-special interests message adopted by each of the leading candidates, and he delivered it with the skill and grace of a trial attorney out of a Grisham novel. It did little for his campaign in New Hampshire. Former Governor Howard Dean bolstered his message, and in campaign appearances displayed a wealth of knowledge on assorted family matters. That did not help him narrow the gap between himself and Senator John Kerry (which end up at 13 points in New Hampshire). In fact, Kerry was the poorest campaigner of the three. At rallies, he was less inspiring than the competition. He did improve as Election Day neared. But the voters did not respond as reviewers.

There’s a Northern yearning for a Southerner. The combined votes for Edwards and Clark nearly equaled Dean’s total. A key argument made by the supporters for Edwards and Clark was that the Democrats cannot take the White House without a Southerner. Most New Hampshire voters did not agree. But had Clark and Edwards not split the we-need-a-Bubba-friendly-candidate vote, a single tailored-for-the-South candidate might have fared better.

Mini-Tuesday: Ten Talking Points


Will John Edwards go negative? Edwards has thrived as Mr. Nice. He hasn’t said a bad word about the other guys. Now he’s trying to convince folks it’s a two-man race–and he’s the other man (not Dean, not Clark). In mano-a-mano contests, candidates usually feel compelled to compare themselves to the other contestant, and that means pointing out unflattering aspects of the opponent (or, as the pro-Bush forces did in 2000 concerning John McCain, making stuff up). On election night, Edwards, speaking about Kerry, said, “there are real differences in our own backgrounds and our own policies.” That sounded as if he is trying to figure out how to exploit those differences. There is a stylistic difference between the campaign populism each has adopted. Kerry tells voters, I want to fight for you. Edwards says, I care about you and believe in you. Do voters want a soldier or a social worker?

Will Edwards get the Botox treatment? As soon as Kerry started winning, Republicans and rightwingers began pummeling him. Ed Gillespie, the head of the Republican Party (and former Enron lobbyist), blasted Kerry for being soft on defense and national security issues, selectively citing a handful of the thousands of votes Kerry has cast in his 19 years as a senator. Rightwing partisans started spreading the word that Kerry was a Botoxer and posting before-and-after photos that supposedly proves this. This move was laughable, but their aim was serious: raise questions about Kerry’s authenticity. (Fox News’ Brit Hume told viewers, though, that he has seen Kerry in the green room without makeup and that the frown lines are there.) This is just the start. Now, no one is going to take on Edwards on the Botox front. The guy uses reading glasses as a prop to appear more mature. But what attacks await him? Will the right bother? Can he be characterized as a greedy ambulance-chaser who is single-handedly responsible for runaway lawsuits? In recent days, The Washington Post and The New York Times have run stories on his years as a successful trial lawyer. Though the reporters found a handful of detractors, the pieces mostly depicted him as a Grishamesque hero and as an attorney who carefully chose his cases and treated his clients fairly. And since he’s only been in the Senate five years, the GOP oppo team will have less of a record to mine.

Super Tuesday: Ten Talking Points


After 9/11, grown-ups are wanted. John Edwards ran a swell campaign. He had the best speech of all the candidates. (“There are two Americas….”) He had the best temperament. And he has plenty of brains beneath his golden locks. But he couldn’t seal the deal. He didn’t even come close. It was not because of his ideas; he had few policy differences with Kerry. It was not because he didn’t have the funds to make himself and his positions known to primary voters. It was probably because in this post-9/11 period he did not come across as ready-to-lead. He has not finished his first term in the Senate; he had no previous experience in government or foreign policy. He talked–at length!–about sharing the values of the working class (having been the son of a mill worker before becoming a millionaire trial attorney) and understanding their lives (presumably in a way that the blue-blooded Kerry could not). But empathy only goes so far. It’s not the same as inspiring confidence and reassurance. And it could well be that Democratic voters in 2004 wanted a candidate who reeks of maturity and experience. Edwards was confronted by a stature gap–and the gap won. After 9/11, protector-in-chief is at the top of the list of the president’s job responsibilities. Edwards was not able to persuade voters he yet has the chops for that.

Issues? We don’t need no stinking issues? This was not a contest decided by issues. Most Democratic primary voters were opposed to the Iraq war, skeptical of Nafta and similar trade accords, and uneasy about the Patriot Act. Yet the two candidates who fared best in the primary contest–Kerry and Edwards–both voted for legislation granting Bush the authority to go to war and for the Patriot Act. Kerry voted for Nafta; Edwards was not yet in the Senate for that vote, but he did vote for extending most favored nation trading status to China. No issue–not even the war–defined the campaign for most voters…. Edwards tried to make trade an issue separating himself from Kerry. But he was hanging on to a thin reed: that his criticism of the recent trade pacts was edgier than Kerry’s. But that effort failed. Union voters–who perhaps are the most concerned about trade–still went overwhelmingly for Kerry.

But what about Edwards’ cross-over appeal? Yes, Edwards did well among Republicans and independents in those states where the Rs and Is can vote in the Democratic primary. But in 2000 Senator John McCain was a big hit with the Indies and had more appeal to Dems than Bush. And he only got so far. In party primaries, the first-place ribbon goes to the guy who excites (or wins the votes of) the party faithful. Parties do not nominate folks because they are liked by the other side. That’s the way it is. Each party is burdened by this dynamic. And most Republicans who voted for Edwards would probably end up voting for Bush.

Edwards for veep? He has a net worth of millions, but Edwards is not a retire-early-and-take-up-fly-fishing guy. He’s already given up his Senate seat. What’s he to do now, except angle to be Kerry’s sidekick? He could be a fine choice…. It’s true that a running mate rarely has much impact on a presidential race. (See Dan Quayle.)