Ballot Box

Dean vs. Edwards vs. Bush

Why I’m rooting for an Edwards surge.

A golden boy with a golden message

Unless we learn something awful about Howard Dean in the next several months, the Democratic race for president will probably come down to him and one other, more openly centrist candidate. If money, experience, and military service govern the decision, that candidate could be John Kerry. But there’s one other candidate I can see filling the centrist slot, surviving the Dean insurgency, and giving President Bush a tougher fight. That candidate is John Edwards.

I know, Edwards has served just four and a half years in the Senate. And he’s a trial lawyer, and he’s rich, and he’s unfamiliar with the nuances of some policy debates, and he’s got no military record. I won’t spend this column pointing out that Bush’s résumé was equally thin when he ran for president, that he had less foreign policy experience than Edwards does now, that Bush and Kerry are rich, or that Bush is still unfamiliar with the nuances of most policy debates. The journalistic case for Edwards is that he’s got the most interesting message in the race, distinct from Dean’s and Bush’s, plus the talent to make it stick. He’d put up a hell of a race against Dean and, if he prevailed, a hell of a race against Bush.

Edwards doesn’t have Dean’s fearless clarity or his fire at the podium. What he has instead is a working-class background (unlike Dean, who grew up on Park Avenue), an ear for plain language, candor about his caveats, and a Clintonesque knack for relating to people and engaging complex issues. Monday evening, he displayed these virtues at a town hall meeting in Concord, N.H. Sweating in the heat, he fielded questions from an unfiltered audience with more one-on-one ease than any other candidate has shown.

A year ago, Edwards batted his eyelashes and talked down to audiences like an oily courtroom lawyer. He hedged his statements in a way that suggested ignorance or cowardice. No more. If Dean’s strength is speaking bluntly to the right, Edwards, like Joe Lieberman, has shown a facility for speaking bluntly to the left. In Concord, he stiff-armed a series of demands. Would he support medical marijuana? Not until the scientific debate was resolved. Would he denounce Israeli atrocities? He rejected the premise. Would he repeal the USA Patriot Act? “You need to know I voted for it,” he told the questioner.

Like Dean and Kerry—and unlike Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich—Edwards emphasizes fiscal realism. On hot-button issues, he differs little from Dean. In Concord, he said he favored the death penalty but opposed its unfair administration; supported the Second Amendment but backed common-sense gun laws; and endorsed domestic partnership rights, but not marriage, for gay couples. On national security, however, he struck a tone very different from Dean’s: “I believe in American strength and believe it strongly. And I don’t take a back seat to George Bush or anybody else on that issue.” While calling the anger of many Democrats at Bush “understandable,” Edwards warned that the party must also be “forward-looking, positive, and optimistic.”

A Bush-Dean race would focus on familiar ideological differences. Republicans would paint Dean as a gay-friendly pacifist wimp; Democrats would paint Bush as a divisive, right-wing imperial president and corporate crony. A Bush-Edwards race would focus more on defining the mainstream. Like Clinton, Edwards refuses to accept the conventional border between Democrats and Republicans. He wants to move that border to the right, by redefining the spirit of capitalism and turning it against the GOP.

In Concord, Edwards summarized the clash of worldviews this way:

President Bush honors and respects only wealth. … He wants to be certain that those who have it keep it. … He comes from a world where wealth is largely inherited, not earned. That is not the world I come from. … The difference between George Bush and John Edwards is, while he honors and respects only wealth, I honor and respect hard work. I honor and respect responsibility. I believe in opportunity. He’s about building barriers and closing doors; I’m about exactly the opposite. I want to knock barriers down. I want to open doors.

Edwards seems increasingly committed to this message. Addressing the town hall audience, he wove many of his ideas into it—college scholarships, “tax cuts for the middle class,” savings accounts, tax breaks for first-time home buyers, expensing stock options, and a “bill of rights” for workers and shareholders—as well as the recent accounting scandals. Bush “had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do absolutely anything about corporate responsibility,” Edwards charged. But more broadly, he argued, Bush has shown a pattern of striving

to eliminate the taxation on wealth and the income on wealth. … He wants to see the estate tax gone; he wants to see the tax on capital gains gone; he wants to see the tax on dividends gone. … The president wants to shift the tax burden in America from wealth and income on wealth—people who sit at home and get their statements every month from their investments and see how much money they’ve made—to people like my father. … He wants working people to carry the tax burden.

There are numerous themes in this message, and Edwards will probably spend the rest of his campaign unpacking them. At the Concord event, two caught my eye. One is the sense of honor on which the free market relies. As Edwards put it, “This is about a real belief in capitalism. It’s a belief that our markets can do well, but in order for them to do well, we need honesty, we need truth, we need responsibility.” The other is the work ethic, which Edwards reinforced as he proposed college subsidies for students who work 10 hours per week. “The work won’t hurt ‘em. It won’t hurt ‘em a bit,” he argued as the audience laughed. “This will make them appreciate their college education.”

Edwards closed his presentation by framing the election this way:

Do we believe in an America where the family you’re born into controls your destiny? Our ancestors left a place of princes and paupers and masters and servants. This is not our America. What we believe [is that] wherever you live and whoever your family is, and whatever the color of your skin is, if you’re willing to work hard, if you’re willing to take responsibility, you ought to be able to go as far as your God-given talents and hard work will take you.

I don’t know whether Edwards can beat Dean or Bush with that message. But I’d sure like to see him try.