Ballot Box

The Flip-Flops of John Edwards

What he said then. What he says now. What happened.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, and worst moments. This series assesses the candidates’ purported flip-flops. Here are two switches commonly attributed to John Edwards—and the context his critics leave out.

Flip: In 2000, Edwards voted for a free-trade agreement with China.

Flop: In 2003, Edwards voted against similar free-trade agreements with Singapore and Chile.

Context: Organized labor vigorously opposed both bills. In August 2003, an Edwards spokesman said the agreements with Singapore and Chile “didn’t have sufficient mechanisms to enforce labor protections.” The China agreement didn’t have extensive labor protections, either, but in a floor statement defending his vote on the bill, Edwards argued that opening up trade would help Chinese workers (and force China to curb human rights and labor abuses) as well as North Carolina workers in the long run. The Edwards campaign says that the China pact was a “very close call” but that Edwards voted yes because he thought it would help his constituents.

Flip: In January 2003, Edwards said he would honor the NAACP economic boycott of South Carolina to protest the flying of the Confederate flag on state grounds.

Flop: A month later, the Edwards campaign announced that it was leasing office space in South Carolina and allowing staff members to pay for hotels and restaurants.

Context: Fully joining the boycott meant that Edwards would not be able to spend money in the state, crippling his campaign there. Edwards has promised to stay with friends while in South Carolina rather than pay for hotels. That’s the same position Carol Moseley Braun has taken.