Ballot Box

Prince Edwards

The new candidate of Clintonomics.

One week after his party was humiliated in the midterm elections, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., comes before the Fortune Global Forum, a mini-Davos in Washington, D.C., to fill the political vacuum. “The presidential election season has begun,” declares Jeff Birnbaum, Fortune’s Washington bureau chief, in his introductory remarks. With one party running Congress and the White House, the presidential race is now the only game in town.

Edwards carries a burden into this race. He’s got only four years of government experience and hasn’t compiled much of a record. If he weren’t Southern and handsome, he probably wouldn’t be running. Al Gore “almost certainly would have chosen” Edwards as his running mate if he hadn’t chosen Joe Lieberman instead, says Birnbaum. He adds that Edwards “remains a favorite of Republican Sen. John McCain, who calls him courageous and honest.” Imagine the ads. John Edwards: Probably almost the guy who was almost vice president. John Edwards: He knows John McCain.

Edwards has tamed the constant blinking and the drawl that made his delivery grating in campaign stops earlier this year. He still licks his lips, and he chops the air with every accented syllable as though conducting a high-school band. His twang—”Brazeeyal … idn’t … Whaht Hayows … rahzing heeyting beeyls“—comes off as American cockney, uncouth but authentic. But this speech isn’t for the people. It’s for the CEOs and the press. Edwards rushes through it, flipping pages at a blurry pace in what seems to be an attempt to cover as much policy as possible in his half-hour slot. The candidate of good looks wants to be the candidate of brains. And he largely succeeds. He’s a lot more specific about where he’d cut spending and roll back tax cuts than I expected.

When Edwards and other potential Democratic presidential candidates addressed the Democratic Leadership Council four months ago, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was delivering the campaign message most similar to Bill Clinton’s. The beating Democrats took last week, however, may have deflated Daschle’s prospects. In any event, Edwards now seems to be running on more of a Clinton-type message than the Lieberman-type message he gave the DLC.

Edwards talks a lot about how good things were for people in the ‘90s. He attributes that to wise federal policy. He praises Clinton for cutting the federal civilian work force. He embraces Clinton’s economic theory: “Out-of-control deficits means the government competes with you for the capital you need.” In fact, he copies Clinton’s whole campaign message: “It is time for an economic policy that protects fiscal discipline but gives all Americans who are willing to work hard a real opportunity to develop their skills, improve their economic position, and save for their children’s future.” He even borrows Clinton’s tactical vocabulary, accusing Republicans of “spending” and “squandering” the surplus on tax cuts.

Unlike Clinton, Edwards doesn’t have a Newt Gingrich to demonize. He tries to make the Bush White House a comparable villain. While separating his respect for “the president” from his indictments of “this administration,” Edwards unloads one of the nastiest salvos I’ve seen from a prospective Bush challenger. “The surplus wasn’t killed by accident; this was premeditated. It was a deliberate plan to shortchange most Americans’ future so a very few people could get a tax cut,” he says. He adds that the administration “didn’t stop to think about expanding long-term opportunity … for the middle class.” This isn’t just a criticism of what Republicans have done. It’s an accusation of ill intent.

Edwards’ populism comes across as more hard-edged than Clinton’s, but less so than Gore’s. He complains about executive compensation but focuses on bringing up the pay of ordinary employees rather than bringing down the pay of CEOs. He wants to roll back Bush’s tax cut for families making more than $200,000 a year, but at the same time he wants to make the tax cut permanent for the “middle class.” Maybe Edwards is just being timid because he’s speaking to a business forum. But I doubt it. In fact, I doubt that his proposals are all that different from Gore’s.

So why does Edwards sound so much less unpleasant than Gore? I suspect two reasons. One is the presence of some simple reassurances about the limits of liberalism. “You know why Americans think many Democrats want to spend too much money? They do,” says Edwards. The other is the absence of words that convey belligerence and simplistic class warfare: “fight” and “the powerful.” Could a few simple linguistic modifications have earned Democrats the presidency? Edwards may end up furnishing the answer.