On The Trail

Potential Energy

John Edwards may be the future, but can he be the present?

Have you read my bio?

SIOUX CITY, Iowa—Political writers have been hailing John Edwards’ presidential potential for two years, based on not much more than their general perception that he looks like what a presidential candidate is supposed to look like. In 2001, Time dubbed Edwards the Democrats’ “Golden Boy,” and William Safire heralded him as “the most likely challenger to Al Gore for the 2004 presidential nomination.” The Washington Monthly’s Joshua Green—now of the Atlantic—compared Edwards to “the crusading protagonist of a John Grisham novel,” and omnipresent conservative commentator David Brooks declared that “he’s got the magic.” Here in Slate, William Saletan kicked off an Edwards mini-boomlet in the media this summer when he wrote that the North Carolina senator has “the most interesting message in the race … plus the talent to make it stick.”

All the adulation hasn’t done much for Edwards, however, other than demonstrating to him the powerlessness of the national political media. After sailing through the media primary and holding his own in the money primary, Edwards hasn’t made much traction in the “primary primary”—the one where voters cast ballots. At this admittedly still-early stage, it’s not clear why Edwards is considered in the Democratic field’s “top tier” or why his candidacy is taken so much more seriously than, say, Bob Graham’s. To the Des Moines Register this weekend, Edwards touted the latest Zogby poll showing him “leading” in South Carolina (he’s actually statistically tied with John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Howard Dean) as evidence of his momentum in the race. In reality, Edwards doesn’t appear to have momentum, he doesn’t have name ID, and after Dean raises the $10 million to $15 million he’s going to raise this quarter, Edwards won’t have a money advantage, either.

Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have a chance. In the two days I follow Edwards through northwestern * Iowa, everything about his campaign proves to be just fine. The candidate is fine, the message is fine, the crowds are fine. The problem for Edwards is that fine doesn’t appear good enough to topple the growing Dean juggernaut. Edwards’ events aren’t soporific like Joe Lieberman’s, but they’re also not energizing like Dean’s. They’re perfectly pleasant affairs, not unlike a summer movie that fades from memory on the drive home.

In some ways, Edwards is as good as advertised: It’s impossible to believe that he’s 50 years old (“He doesn’t visibly age,” his Iowa press secretary, Kim Rubey, tells me), and he’s so naturally charming that he doesn’t appear to be trying to win you over, and as a result you don’t resent him for it. On two separate occasions, a voter refers to him as the second coming of John F. Kennedy. The slender hope of the Edwards campaign rests on the candidate’s preternatural reputation for melting voters’ hearts by touching their shoulders and mystically “connecting” with them. The campaign staff’s hope: If he can just touch the hems of their garments, we will be healed.

Here’s Edwards’ pitch in a nutshell to the rural voters he sees Friday and Saturday: 1) I’m not a politician; I’m one of you; 2) because I’m one of you, you can trust me to take on powerful forces such as Washington lobbyists and drug companies; 3) the problem with George Bush is that, unlike me, he isn’t one of you. Both Will Saletan and the NewRepublic’s Ryan Lizza believe this to be part of Edwards’ supremely effective “meta-message,” but to my ear there’s too much meta- and not enough -message.

It’s impossible to overstate the extent to which Edwards relies on his biography to appeal to voters. John Kerry gets knocked for his frequent mentions of his Vietnam experience, but Kerry’s use of his life story is positively subtle compared to Edwards’. His campaign pitch boils down to: Everything I Needed To Know About the White House I Learned in Robbins, N.C. Why does Edwards want to improve public education? He was the first person in his family to go to college, and he wouldn’t be where he is today without strong public schools, so “it’s personal.” Why does he support affirmative action? After growing up in North Carolina in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s, he feels “a sense of personal responsibility” to help those who suffer from racial discrimination. Again and again, Edwards says that a position is “part of what I am,” or a result of how he grew up. During a radio interview, he’s asked what distinguishes him from the other Democratic candidates. “Where I come from,” Edwards replies. Edwards is reported to be styling his campaign after Bill Clinton’s 1992 bid, but the echoes on my two-day trip with him are closer to Bob Dole’s 1996 “Russell values” campaign.

The implicit message of Edwards’ stump speech: It’s not how much money you have, it’s how much money you were born into. The kicker to every speech is, “I believe in an America where the son of a millworker can beat the son of a president for the White House.” Over and over, Edwards hits President Bush for “where he comes from,” “his family,” and “how he grew up.”

Edwards’ critique of Bush is more effective when it grows more substantive. With the administration’s fiscal policy, “there’s actually a more radical thing going on than simply tax cuts for the rich,” he says. By eliminating taxes on dividends and capital gains, Bush hopes to abolish all taxes on capital and shift the tax burden “from wealth to work.” By contrast, Edwards would raise the capital gains tax to 25 percent for those who make more than $300,000 a year. I’d like to see him take this one step further: He could appropriate some GOP rhetoric by calling it a “flat tax” when you tax capital and labor at the same rates.

Another affecting element of Edwards’ pitch is his promise to end the nation’s practice of having “two school systems in this country: one for the haves and one for the have-nots.” But how long can a multimillionaire get away with this man-of-the-people stance? (OK, if George W. Bush is any evidence, pretty damn long.) Late Friday night in Storm Lake, Iowa, Edwards delivers his standard line that “there’s no such thing as a jobless recovery” in his hometown. “Unless you’re a millionaire,” chimes in a member of the audience. Edwards nods and agrees. “It’s not where most of us live,” he says. Left unspoken: It’s where I, John Edwards, live.

If it matters where you come from, why doesn’t it matter where you are? The candidate who’s supposed to be the Democrats’ future may be a little too focused on the past. 

Correction, Sept. 8, 2003: This piece originally said the author had followed Edwards around northeastern Iowa. (Return to the corrected sentence.)