John Edwards’ campaign was always the first to react to any news, so his departure from the Democratic race could immediately be felt Wednesday morning, when his campaign was the only one not reacting to it. Clinton and Obama rushed to praise Edwards and announce that they would carry on his message of combating poverty. That was the classy way of signaling that the race was on to woo his supporters. (Hillary gained an early lead in the suck-up war, putting a tribute to Edwards and his wife on her campaign home page.)
For John Edwards, there just wasn’t enough change to go around. His strategy for winning the Democratic nomination was to be the anti-Hillary candidate of change, but that was Barack Obama’s strategy, too, and Obama was better at making the sale. At first this just irked Edwards, who tried to point out to voters that he had been talking about hope longer than Obama. Then he figured out that “I got here first” didn’t matter and argued that while Obama’s words were “nice,” only a fighter who could take on the corporations could give Democrats the new direction they were thirsting for.
But Edwards’ pitch was too limited. He often sounded like he was preaching to the converted in his party. Did this sink him? The question will be thoroughly adjudicated as the Democratic Party launches into another of its stirring debates over the limits of the populist message. But watching Edwards, it always felt like he was touching a passionate minority of voters who already believed that corporations were at the root of all of America’s problems, as if all that was needed was the right candidate to beat them back. Edwards rarely summoned the bridging language that might have resonated with people who weren’t already predisposed to corporation hate.
Did the Edwards campaign die because the media were too focused on his trivial slip-ups and the celebrity of his opponents, as Edwards’ aides often claimed? Surely the media contributed to his problems. The haircut, the mansion, and the hedge fund all made it through to voters who repeatedly mentioned phoniness in interviews over the months when talking about Edwards, but they mentioned it in part because people had genuine and not implanted questions about his authenticity.
But the throngs that turned out for Barack Obama weren’t doing Wolf Blitzer’s bidding. Also, if the media started to write off Edwards after his distant second-place finish in Iowa, that was because the Edwards campaign practically told them to. During the Obama-Clinton-centric coverage leading up to Iowa, the Edwards campaign argued that voters in that sensible farm-state laboratory, where flash, sizzle, and sound bites wouldn’t matter, would embrace his essential genius. Edwards would do well in Iowa because he could meet every voter (perhaps two or three times) and get out his message without the media filter. But then he made his pitch, and the voters bought Obama’s. After he’d hyped Iowa as a proving ground, it was hard for him to refute its verdict. And then that verdict just kept getting reinforced in Edwards’ dismal showings in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. At some point, if you’re not racking up the votes, it’s your own fault. As Edwards gracefully acknowledged today.
Whom will Edwards help by getting out? The correct answer is: Who knows? Hillary will have only one opponent in Thursday night’s debate, which probably makes her happy. She likes order, and if nothing else, it would have been unpredictable to have a wounded guy with nothing to lose flapping around on stage. True, Edwards helped her in the last debate by pointing out Obama’s failings, but throughout the campaign he’s more often aligned himself against Clinton, calling her the face of the “status quo.” On a thematic level, it would seem that Obama might benefit by picking up the rest of the “change voters,” but while that word has been thrown around a lot in this election season, it’s not clear what that means specifically. Edwards attracted blue-collar folk and rural voters—and that’s Hillary’s constituency, too. Edwards’ message was, at bottom, a deeply practical one—by putting my hands on the throats of corporations, I’ll deliver universal health care and better wages. Obama’s more abstract, high-concept aspiration to change the political system may seem too attenuated for those voters—too nice, as Edwards once put it—to get the job done.
After Edwards announced that he was dropping out of the race, he planned to spend the afternoon working at a Habitat for Humanity house, a fitting exit for a candidate who spoke so passionately and so often about the plight of the poor and struggling. None of his rivals matched him when it came to talking about equality, one of the bedrock principles of the Democratic Party. He has often said combating poverty has been the cause of his life. With his campaign finished, the cause continues, and if the competition for his votes gets as fierce as everything else has been between Obama and Clinton, Edwards will be promised a way to continue that cause in a future Democratic administration.