On The Trail

The Pretender

John Edwards was never a serious candidate.

ATLANTA—One of John Edwards’ most effective bits on the trail was his description of how he overcame the soft bigotry of low expectations in the courtroom. On the stump, Edwards would paint himself as a lawyer who was a country rube facing impossible odds against high-priced, pinstriped corporate attorneys. They would look at him and sniff, who is this guy? What’s he doing here? We’re going to cream him. He doesn’t belong with us. But despite being underestimated, “I beat ‘em,” Edwards would shout. “And I beat ‘em again. And I beat ‘em again.”

Pretty much the opposite happened during the presidential campaign. Edwards came into the race highly regarded by the pundits and insiders who evaluate political talent. As early as 2001, the New York TimesWilliam Safire pronounced that Edwards was “the most likely challenger to Al Gore” for the 2004 Democratic nomination. We like this guy, journalists told their readers over and over. He belongs here. That judgment never wavered, despite the fact that as Edwards campaigned in the primaries and caucuses, he lost ‘em. And he lost ‘em again. And he lost ‘em again.

In truth, Edwards was never a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. Despite the media’s best efforts to gin up a two-man race between Edwards and John Kerry after Howard Dean’s departure, that contest never materialized. There was never compelling evidence that voters considered Edwards as Kerry’s strongest competitor. As I wrote a month ago, this was a race between the front-runner, Kerry, and a bunch of people in third place. Nobody ever staked a valid claim for second.

From Iowa until Wisconsin, the final primary before Dean dropped out of the race, Democrats had held primaries or caucuses in 17 states. Edwards placed a distant fourth in eight—nearly half—of them. His second-place finish in Wisconsin was his sixth time as first-runner-up, but before that, he had been tied with Dean, who finished second five times in the first 17 states. Dean was also a much more consistent vote-getter than Edwards. He finished third in seven of the first 17 states, while Edwards did that only three times. And after winning Vermont Tuesday, Dean has now racked up as many primary victories as Edwards (and, to be fair, Wesley Clark). I’m not saying that Dean was the real No. 2 of this race. I’m just saying that Edwards wasn’t either. The whole Edwards-Kerry Super Tuesday face-off was a bunch of hooey. The presidential race was over at the end of the first week of February.

Was it too fast? I’m not sure. It’s true that the vote-casting stage was exceedingly short. Iowa conducted its first-in-the-nation caucuses a little more than six weeks ago, on Jan. 19. But the so-called “invisible primary” that leads up to Iowa was exceptionally long. And it got a lot of national news coverage. Dean landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek in early August 2003, nearly a full year before the Democratic national convention. When I spent a few days with Dick Gephardt’s Iowa campaign this past October, 19 national reporters were there with me. So, yes, this campaign cycle was very, very short, but the prelude was also very, very long.

Over the next few days, Edwards’ flaws will be dissected. Most of them are well-known. He seemed young, even though he was 50. He never passed the threshold I’m-strong-on-national-security test. Voters liked him personally, but they wanted to hear more specifics on the issues. His above-the-fray campaign strategy worked OK during the multicandidate stage of the race, but in a head-to-head battle with Kerry he proved unwilling to be tough. (I always thought that Edwards’ declaration that he wasn’t the candidate who was best at attacking other Democrats actually hurt him, despite the applause, because it created the perception that he wouldn’t be willing to wage a forceful campaign against President Bush.)

By themselves, none of those reasons fully explain why Edwards didn’t win. In the end, he lost because there really are two Americas. There’s the one that votes for John Edwards, and then there’s the one for everybody else.