The Meaning of Edwards' Candidacy and Campaign
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Nothing became John Edward's campaign for the Presidency more than the manner of his leaving it.
Let me note, in response to some of the comments in that thread, I don't think his talk of "one America" was any kind of sop to Obama.
More likely it was meant to make clear that one of his central campaign themes, the fight for economic justice, is a unifying one for all liberal/progressives, (sorry, but I refuse to stop calling myself a liberal), the middle class, the working class, the working poor, and those too poor and marginalized to find employment, as well as being a reference to Michael Harrington's formulation of "the other America," which JFK made part of his campaign in 1960, especially in those visits to West Virginia, where grinding poverty was on such conspicuous display.
It wasn't just the speech, though, the theatrics were perfect in their multiple meanings - NOLA, the Ninth Ward, Habitat For Humanity, Elizabeth at his side, surrounded by family and friends, new ones and old ones, and the meaningful symbolism of their commitment as a family, right after the speech, to join in with a community dedicated to raising up housing out of the watery ruins of New Orleans, a gesture that said, yes a candidacy was ending but not the movement whose values and ideas that candidacy was meant to embody.
All that said, and swallowing the lump in my throat, what are we to make of Edwards' campaign and its failure to get sufficient traction to take him through Super Tuesday; what can we learn from its strengths and its weaknesses, what worked, what didn't, and why?
I hope you weren't expecting that I have the answers. Thinking about what they might be is my purpose.
So let's start with Jon Cohn, who put up a piece about Edwards yesterday at The New Republic. Because most of the magazine is behind a subscription wall, let me give you a sense of it.
On why Edwards' perpetual third place position in the campaign wasn't about his political skills:
As anybody who attended his town meetings could attest, he may have been the most effective campaigner of all—capable of establishing an instant connection with audiences, then sweeping them up with a moving, coherent story about what was wrong with America and how he proposed to fix it. Edwards was also, I would argue, a more versatile campaigner than his rivals. He was terrific working the grassroots, much like Obama, but also excelled in the debates, just as Clinton has. As his advisers were constantly reminding reporters—most memorably, through this priceless video—focus groups frequently named Edwards the overwhelming "winner" in those televised exchanges. Alas, a media preoccupied with the Clinton-Obama rivalry rarely seemed to notice.
So, what went wrong?
Still, if Edwards wants to blame somebody for his defeat, he shouldn't look at the media. He should look at himself. And I mean that in the best sense possible. Edwards' biggest problem may have been that he was too compelling—so compelling that his rivals effectively adopted his agenda. From the beginning, Edwards was positioning himself as the champion of Americans struggling to get ahead financially. And rather than simply offer populist rhetoric, he backed it with a serious, comprehensive set of policies.
By the time Clinton and Obama had fleshed out their respective agendas, however, there simply wasn't that much difference among them. Pundits frequently criticized Edwards for his unabashed populism and, it's true, his rhetoric was the most openly confrontational of the three leading Democrats. But in terms of what the three were actually proposing to do, the agendas were virtually identical—not to mention widely popular, if the polls are to be believed. We're all populists now.
Edwards alone can't take credit for that; Clinton and Obama would have endorsed some of the same policies anyway, given the country's problems and their similar ideological pedigrees. But Edwards still played a key role in setting the standards for the debate. And no issue showcases this more than universal health insurance.
Cohn, whose field is health care, has a little backstage gossip on why none of the candidates have submitted a single-payer plan.
Edwards was assisted in these efforts by a terrific policy team, including James Kvaal and Peter Harbage, not to mention his wife, Elizabeth. Not only was she an early and consistent advocate for universal coverage. She apparently pushed hard for embracing a true single-payer system—something, I am told, Edwards came very close to doing. He decided against it, largely it didn't seem politically viable. But he always made a point of telling audiences that his plan created a new public insurance plan into which anybody could enroll—and that, if enough people joined it, eventually his plan would evolve into a single-payer plan on its own. If that happened, he said, he was just fine with it.
Let me note that Hillary's plan also contains such a public insurance option, which does leave the door open to single payer in the future. I'm not clear on whether or not Obama's plan has such an option, but without a universal mandate, there is no single payer option at all.
Until I read Cohn's discussion of one of Edwards' particular strengths, I hadn't realized what it is, precisely, that I've been missing from Obama's performance, so heavy on the unity theme, so vague about the vision of what kind of America exactly it is he wishes to unite us in support of.
Which brings me to the one thing I'll miss most about Edwards' campaign: His intuitive sense of how to sell policies. On the health care issue, for example, it was Edwards who offered the best rationale for requiring everybody to buy insurance—a controversial measure that Obama, for example, has not endorsed. Eschewing the complicated, if valid, policy arguments about adverse selection, he invoked a simple analogy: It's like Social Security. Everybody has to pay in so that everybody can benefit. Edwards was also savvy about taxes. Unlike so many Democrats, he didn't flinch at the accusation that some of his proposed programs would require new spending, leading eventually to more taxes. He would simply say yes, that's right—and they're worth it.
His pitch wasn't always perfect; as my friend Mark Schmitt recently reminded me, he sometimes seemed confused about whether he was fighting for the poor, the middle class, or both. (Ideally, it should be the latter.) But overall he got a lot more right than wrong.
Bill Clinton had that ability, Hillary, not so much. Sigh.
I can only assume Obama has it, God knows he has the gift of oratory, but I'd appreciate some demonstration of his ability to sell specific liberal policies, since implementing a genuinely progressive vision as President will depend on exactly that ability.
Cohn's whole piece is worth a read, and just in case it isn't behind the pay wall, here's the link.
Equally interesting was Ed Kilgore's response to Cohn, also at The New Republic.
I couldn't agree more with Jonathan Cohn's assessment of Edwards' policy proposals and their impact. Indeed, I'd go further: His bold and imaginative health-care plan headed off what appeared to be an irresistible stampede of progressives towards a single-payer system as the only alternative to a timid, confusing, incremental approach. And let's remember that Edwards' effort to inject economic inequality and poverty into the debate began in 2004, and never flagged for a moment since then.
But while Jonathan generously suggests this is why Edwards really "won" on a conceptual level and among policy wonks, any honest assessment of his campaign has to consider why he actually lost in reality, and among voters. Any fact-based evaluation of the Edwards campaign has to deal with a couple of realities:
Let me take a moment to caution readers not to assume that Kilgore is reciting DLC talking points. It is true that Kilgore has a long association with the DLC, but I've been reading his posts at TPMCafe, and its given me an awareness that there are DLCers and then again, there are DLCers.
Kilgore's reference to single-payer as a political non-starter is a fairly consistent position among progressive health care wonks, but Kilgore isn't extolling incrementalism. He's extolling Edwards for having been the first to find a way to avoid it.
Remember, Edwards' plan, and Hillary's knock-off of it, don't nibble at the edges of universal coverage. Their plans are an implementation of universal coverage, and now, with a minimum of disruption to those who have some form of coverage, including government programs, (which would include S-CHIP for example), while preserving some choice, and starting to introduce the kind of efficiencies of scale that are needed if we are ever able to get a handle on our rising health care costs, which are always used by the opponents of universal health coverage as a scare tactic: How will we afford it? The right answer is better than if we stay totally dependent on a fractured private health sector that has done nothing to keep down costs.
Okay, now try to not become incensed by Kilgore's next point:
His message was a remarkably faithful and wholesale adoption of the Crashing the Gates-style netroots analysis of the parties, of Washington, of the Clintonian Democratic tradition, and of galvanizing value of "fighting populist" rhetoric. It was crafted with the help of the maestro of this approach, Joe Trippi. Yet it did not rouse much in the way of support from its intended audiences. In the end, most of the Deanian excitement in the campaign flowed to Obama, who consistently deployed a rhetoric of post-partisanship that is anathema to the point of view advanced by Edwards, as Edwards himself suggested on many occasions.
No, I don't think Kilgore is attacking the netroots; he interacts with us regularly at TPMCafe. Nor do I accept entirely Kilgore's analysis, but facts, as Al Gore has reminded us, are often inconvenient:
While no one will ever know how Edwards would have fared had he won Iowa, his campaign ultimately appealed to the same kind of voters he won in 2004 with a very different message: moderate-to-conservative white men. His exceptional weakness among African-Americans, in 2008 as in 2004, provides a cautionary tale about the breadth of appeal of "populism."
It is quite simply a fact that John Edwards was able to enlist enthusiasm across racial and class lines when interacting with voters personally, but that the campaign never found a way to translate that success on the wholesale level into success on the retail level, even in Iowa, where he and his family had practically taken up residence. He inspired locally, but not globally.
...Edwards is obviously a very talented person who could be of great value to any Democratic administration. But his political strategy just wasn't as good as his policies or his own personal abilities. And the failure of his candidacy should make progressives spend some time considering whether the "fighting partisan populist" perspectives on how to expand and mobilize the Democratic base are now as outdated as the conventional wisdom they replaced.
The "why" of that reality is something we all need to think about, although I'm too much of a populist at heart to buy into Kilgore's final formulation.
First of all, there is a lot more to "populism" than Kilgore acknowledges. One doesn't usually think of the Sixties as an outburst of populism, but that is certainly one strand of the civil rights movement, as well as the student movement that started in Berkeley with Mario Savio; both were all about grassroots participation in the institutions of which they were the grassroots. Even the SDS, before it gave way to the evils of vanguardism, was all about "participatory democracy."
Part of the problem for Edwards was Obama's co-opting of that aspect of populism, minus the fighting mode and rhetoric. Not that Edwards didn't articulate his belief in the active definition of citizenship, never more so than in his speech yesterday. But that broader issue seemed to get lost.
There is also the structure of our primary campaigns, which mitigate against real dialogue, between voters, between candidates, and between candidates and their potential voters. Edwards' personal beliefs, policy positions and the politics of his positions began to get boiled down to slogans and talking points, and the repetitiveness became numbing.
Which brings us to the biggest missing piece in both Cohn's and Kilgore's analysis, the role of the media.
You should be able to see immediately why John's populism was anathema to the SCLM. They view voters as members of a passive audience, whereas populism assumes the grassroots are made up of citizens to whom public institutions, like government and the media, are ultimately answerable, and that when they are not, public activism is a vital answer.
Our SCLM is always on the hunt for hypocrisy, although their understanding of the concept is one dimensional. How can John Edwards be an authentic populist, a champion of the poor and the marginalized when he is handsome, accomplished and rich. Elizabeth Edwards' desire to build her own mansion was portrayed as somehow over the top, as if the Washington townhouses and summer homes typical of most journalists makes them tribunes of the people. Yes, the square footage indicated that it was to be a huge house, although little attention was paid to the fact that some of that footage was to be taken up with an indoor tennis court and swimming pool, which might have been especially attractive to a family in which the mother had already had one bout with cancer, and everyone had full knowldge that a second one was a possibility.
That such a formulation would have applied to FDR, JFK and to Bobby Kennedy, not to mention Teddy Roosevelt, was a point occasionally made by guest commentators, very occasionally, and naturally, such calls to think historically were ignored.
The haircut, the mansion, the grooming video, and the use made of them by the usual rightwing meme-makers, aided immensely by the happy collaboration of the media, from Maureen Dowd all the way to the dizzy heights of broadcsst stardom and the estimable biographer of that great generation, Tom Brokaw, one of the great dullards of all time, are too well-known to go into here. Digby has done brilliant work excavating this particular swamp, although I don't have any specific links for you, (the search function on her site is inoperable), but here is a superlative piece by Jamison Foser at Media Matters that sketches in the bigger picture against which the attacks on Edwards as yet another Democratic girly-man need to be understood.
What the press mainly did to Edwards was to ignore him. Remember the brilliant speech on foreign policy John gave at Pace University? Totally ignored, not a hint anywhere in the SCLM that anyone even knew he gave one. You can read it and the updates made by the campaign to the speech here. Read it and weep, because I think you'll agree that it is the most fully developed vision among all three of the top candidates, of what our relationship to the rest of the world ought to be, as well as a brilliant critique of what's wrong with our current "war on terror>" More tragically, it's one that I believe a large majority of Americans, including independents, would have happily embraced as a genuine and much needed change from the poisonous policies of George W. Bush.
Nothing illustrates better the role of the media in undermining Edwards' campaign than the manner of its coverage of his leaving of it.
I was watching MSNBC, but I'm sure it was typical, since the same themes and attitudes about Edwards have been ubiquitous across the media. Mrs. Allen Greenspan was anchoring, and trying to fill the time before Edwards made his appearance, she noted the fascinating schisms in the Democratic Party, although she called them "threads," but divisions was clearly what she meant. Then Chris Matthews responded to Andrea's request for enlightenment on how you could have the suave Obama and the down-home populist Edwards in the same party with the nuttiest analysis I've ever heard; Democrats, it seems, are divided into the regular, traditional Dems, divided among old-fashioned interest groups, which are essentially populist, and the outsider/insurgents, who are upscale and intellectual, examples given were Gene McCarthy, Paul Tsongas and Bill Bradley, and whose main interest is in an abstract notion of ethics and good governement, Clinton being in the former camp, Obama being the idealistic good government guy. And before any of you jump on this particular circus wagon regarding Obama, remember, we're talking about Chris Matthews.
Once Edwards had spoken, the general tone was respectful, as Xan pointed out here, the way people tend to be at a funeral. Even so, the expensive hair cut came up, and all the rest, with special emphasis on the fact that Edwards ran such a different campaign than he had in 2004, as if nothing that might have happened in the interim could have changed his views. This lead immediately to the question of whether or not Edwards had suffered from an authenticity gap, running as an angry populist.
Jim Warren of the Chicago Sun-Times rejected the notion that someone rich can't take the positions Edwards had, pointing to the Kennedys and FDR, but he then went on to explore what fascinated him about what they'd just seen, which was the awful emotional deflation we had been watching, covered up, to be sure, by a brave front, but just think what it must have meant to Edwards, so confident as a top trial attorney, having to confront this stunning electoral defeat, and on and on. Yes, they all agreed, they had been watching an intensely sad moment.
That nothing about this description comported with anything we had just viewed mattered not.
Of course we can assume that there was pain and disappointment for everyone associated with the Edwards' campaign in coming to terms with its suspension, but that funereal note had been introduced exclusively by our media monitors. I'm bothering to go into this kind of detail to make clear to us all that our media is not only uninformed about policy matters, but it is just as clueless, just as mired in cliches, just as incapable of reality-based reporting when it comes to understanding what our politics are all about.
There was nothing funereal about Edwards speech, or any aspect of the occasion. There was no display of anything but satisfaction that his campaign had made some kind of difference and there was a clear and compelling call to community and to action within a liberal/progressive movement, both at the grassroots and at the electoral and governmental levels, from which Edwards draws comfort and inspiration, and within which he and Elizabeth will remain active.
One more link, which had I discovered it earlier, I might not have bothered with this post, so close to mine and so good is the analysis of Meteor Blades writing at Daily Kos; be sure to read it.