Ballot Box

Wise Counsel

Edwards copies Clinton’s message—in invisible ink.

You can’t accuse John Edwards of lacking a clear presidential campaign theme. Announcing his candidacy on the Today show Thursday morning, Edwards answered the first and last questions put to him this way:

Q. Why are you running for president?
A. Because I want to be a champion for regular people.Q. What’s the one reason people should vote for John Edwards?
A. Because I will be a champion for regular people in the White House every day.

Edwards may trail his 2004 competitors in stature and grasp of policy, but he’s got a head start at honing a message. Quick, what’s John Kerry all about? Tom Daschle? Joe Lieberman? Call me back when you’ve got it down to a sentence.

The early line on Edwards is that he’s this year’s Clinton. He’s got Clinton’s assets: youth, brains, good looks, Southern roots. He’s also got Clinton’s liabilities: callowness, slick positioning, and a suspicious history. In Edwards’ case, the suspicion concerns his career as a lawyer. Republicans think they can frame Edwards as another Clinton in all the bad ways. But a campaign truly modeled on Clinton’s would defy such an attack because Clinton’s genius was in taking the focus off himself and putting it on you.

Halfway through the Today interview, host Matt Lauer reminded Edwards, “Personal injury lawyers don’t always carry with them the best image.” When Al Gore was considering Edwards as a potential running mate, Lauer recalled, “then-Bush adviser Ari Fleischer said, ‘Bring us the ambulance chaser.’ ” Edwards replied,

I spent most of my adult life representing kids and families against very powerful opponents, usually big insurance companies. And my job was to give them a fair shake. … They needed somebody to be their fighter, to be their champion. … It’s, by the way, exactly the same thing I’ve tried to do since I’ve been in the Senate, and it’s exactly the same thing I’ll do if I’m in the White House.

Bingo. You don’t have to like the lawyer. You only have to like his client. In fact, you only have to like his client better than the corporate sleazeball on the other side—which isn’t hard to do when the client, in the Clinton-Edwards formulation, is you.

If you don’t think this trick can work for Edwards, remember that it worked for Clinton even after he messed around with an intern and lied about it under oath. Republicans trained their spotlights on the president. They had a special prosecutor and a rapt press to help them. But every day, Clinton said he still came to work thinking about how to help you. That fall, voters sided with Clinton—or rather, with themselves.

Gore’s message in 2000—”I’ll fight for you”—was supposed to partake of the same magic. But the message doesn’t work if the messenger gets in the way. The trial can’t be about the client if the lawyer’s personality keeps calling attention to itself. Maybe Gore would have understood that if he’d been a lawyer.