“We’re in a war of ideas!” So declared Bill Barry, chairman of the Nashua, New Hampshire, Democrats, when he enthusiastically introduced Senator John Edwards at a campaign rally as the fellow who most deserved to win the primary in two days.
Barry was wrong.
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. Representative Dennis Kucinich has tried to provoke a debate on two key matters by claiming he alone has a plan to replace U.S. troops in Iraq with United Nations forces within 90 days–though the U.N. has yet to indicate it is willing to do that–and by calling for universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care. But given his in-the-basement standing in the polls, Kucinich has not created any back-and-forth on these topics.
This is a campaign of impressions and identities. The goal: find the right knight to vanquish the evil king. In on-the-stump performance, Dean and Edwards have been far better campaigners than Kerry and Clark. But that might not be enough for them to trip up Kerry the frontrunner.
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.