The National Enquirer is reporting what everyone already knew—that John Edwards is in fact the father of Rielle Hunter’s child—and a North Carolina TV station says he may admit paternity. This news has been met largely with shrugs. Edwards is not only a failed candidate, he is a failed politician, with next to no influence among Democrats.
Still, the news raises two tantalizing hypothetical questions: What if Edwards had won the Democratic nomination? What if he had won the presidency?
First question first. It’s easy to forget how close John Edwards came to being the Democratic nominee. When Edwards entered the presidential race in December 2006, many people saw him as the Democrats’ best hope. Unlike Obama, he had legislative experience. Unlike Hillary, he’d spent two years touring Iowa and beefing up his populist credentials. And no one blamed him for Kerry’s loss in 2004. He was smart, good-looking, and Southern—just like every Democratic president since Johnson.
So what would the primary have looked like? Let’s pretend, since we’re making all this up anyway, that Obama had decided not to enter the race—he had heeded the “wait your turn” argument many Democrats were making. Edwards would likely have sucked up all the energy and talent that instead ended up joining Obama. David Axelrod had worked for Edwards in 2004, and David Plouffe had worked for Axelrod. (Axelrod had also worked with Hillary on epilepsy advocacy but never as a candidate.) Edwards’ themes might even have been “Hope” and “Change.” Meanwhile, the big endorsements for Obama—Ted Kennedy, Bill Richardson, not to mention major unions like the SEIU and Teamsters—would likely have gone to the relatively progressive Edwards. Edwards’ fundraising might not have matched the Obama machine, but he certainly would have been able to harness the power of small donations over the Web to match or out-raise Hillary.
Then there’s the electoral map. An Edwards-Clinton face-off would probably have looked a lot like Obama-Clinton. Edwards would have won Iowa. Clinton might have taken New Hampshire, as she did in 2008. Nevada would have been a split, but Edwards would have swept South Carolina. (He won 26 percent anyway.) That would have left everything to Feb. 5, after which, if the race was still close, they would have battled for delegates. Edwards would probably have nailed the caucuses, as Obama did. But Hispanics and African-Americans might easily have swung to Hillary. Needless to say, the odds of candidate Edwards becoming nominee Edwards would have been good.
OK, so he made it through the primaries. What then? Like Obama, Edwards would have shifted to the center—embracing Israel, hedging on FISA, and distancing himself from the netroots to which he owed his resurgence. As far as the scandal, timing would have been everything. It’s easy to say that if Edwards had won the Democratic nomination, news of his affair—which emerged in late July 2008—would have torpedoed his campaign.
But that may be too simple. If Edwards were the nominee, he likely would have behaved differently. He probably wouldn’t have met Rielle Hunter at the Beverly Hilton on July 21, for example. He probably would have cut off all communication whatsoever with Hunter. Hush money would have flowed. Former confidante Andrew Young, whose forthcoming tell-all memoir promises to deal Edwards yet another blow, would be the best-paid man on the planet. Sure, details of the scandal would have trickled out. It’s just impossible to say when or to what extent. Without the incriminating photos in the Enquirer, it would have been easy to tamp down, Clinton-style. Democrats would have refused to believe it; to do so would have been partywide suicide.
At the same time, Republican opposition researchers would have sunk half their budget into digging up dirt. (Unlike Obama’s relationships with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, an Edwards love affair would have qualified as a bona fide scandal.) And if reporters with their shoestring budgets and multiple beats were able to gather juicy tidbits, GOP operatives definitely would have found something. Say they had: It’s still a fair question whether John McCain would have used it. In 2008, McCain refused to mention Jeremiah Wright in his campaign ads, despite a staff eager to do so. There’s a good chance he would have left Hunter alone, too, especially considering his own marital history.
But McCain wouldn’t have needed to say anything. The lies would have spoken for themselves. Edwards’ moralizing and trotting out of family would have in retrospect looked hypocritical. McCain’s “straight talk” would have seemed all the more appealing. Even if Democrats stayed loyal, Edwards would have lost independents. It’s safe to assume that if Edwards had won the nomination, McCain would be president.
It’s hard to overstate the ripple effect on American politics, especially the Democratic Party. Democrats would have blown their best shot at the presidency in a generation. Every bit of joy and enthusiasm and relief that spilled out after Obama’s victory—imagine the opposite. Despair. Disillusionment. Recriminations would be shouted, scapegoats slaughtered. Liberals in their fury might even embrace McCain, who would suddenly realize he doesn’t have to tack so far right to win. Edwards would become a curse word.
Some former Edwards staffers have claimed that they had planned to sabotage the campaign if their candidate was on the verge of winning the nomination. But that’s easy to say in hindsight. If Edwards had been about to beat Hillary and, with the hopes and dreams of half the country behind him, take the presidency, it would have been insane to pull the plug. No cost/benefit analysis would have counseled it.
Could Edwards have won? Possibly. If, somehow, the news had never leaked. If Rielle Hunter had been bought off or mysteriously disappeared. If the McCain campaign somehow botched the oppo.
So let’s say—again, because we can!—that he did win and this news emerged after his victory. This would have been a disaster of a different sort. The scandal would have overshadowed his first-term agenda. His poll numbers would have dropped so low as to render him impotent. His credibility—so necessary in debates like health care reform—would be nonexistent. Resignation might be the only solution, leaving us with a President Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden or Chris Dodd.
Yes, staying in office while in disgrace is possible. And it could even have odd, Lifetime- movielike silver linings. It would have changed the way we look at marriage: Imagine he reconciled publicly with Rielle and invited her to the White House. Or if Elizabeth left him—the first presidential divorce. Either way, presidential politics would have descended into soap opera.
As for the more likely scenarios of Edwards becoming vice president or attorney general, those narratives would have played out relatively simply: appointment, revelation, resignation. The only difference would be that these alternate histories—the possibility that this man could have led the country—would have hit even closer to home.
Of course, it’s impossible to say any of these things would have happened. Chaos theory, butterfly effect, etc. A political landscape without Obama would have produced a whole different set of issues, debates, gaffes, stories, and nonstories. But of the infinite number of possible outcomes of the 2008 election, a remarkable number of them involve John Edwards.