The Evolution of John Edwards
The smiling centrist of 2004 is now a growling populist. Does he know what Democrats want?
John Edwards flashed his trademark megawatt smile when asked if he could get his message across even though he lags behind Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in national polls. Surveying the seven TV cameras and two dozen reporters and photographers at his press conference in Hanover, N.H., Edwards drawled, "I think if you look around this room, you'll see it's relatively easy for me to be heard."
That much is true. The Democratic vice presidential candidate from 2004 is well known in political circles and has the kind of charisma that attracts news coverage-and crowds-wherever he goes. The problem is whether his new message of dramatic change will catch on, and that will depend on whether fellow Democrats are in a take-no-prisoners mood when the presidential primaries and caucuses start next January. Certainly, the ongoing debate in Congress over the Iraq war adds resonance to Edwards's outrage about the conflict and, more broadly, fuels his newfound frustration with the status quo. "I am the candidate of big, fundamental change," he told U.S. News.
Obviously, Edwards himself has changed considerably from the happy-face centrist who refrained from attack politics in '04. His appeal today is based in large part on his sharp-edged antiwar stand, which is more urgent and emotional than the positions of Senators Clinton and Obama. Edwards, reflecting the growing impatience of many rank-and-file Democrats nationwide, derides the nonbinding resolution now before Congress, which opposes President Bush's "surge" of 21,500 additional troops into Iraq. "Nonbinding resolutions don't stop the escalation of this war," Edwards told U.S. News. "It's time for Congress to use its power [over spending] to stop the escalation of this war and to keep this president from making another huge ... ego-driven mistake." Edwards favors withdrawing 40,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops immediately to pressure the Iraqis to take charge of their own security and removing all U.S. combat troops within 12 to 18 months. Last week, Edwards added another stipulation: capping funds at enough for 100,000 troops, to "mandate a withdrawal" of thousands of troops in excess of that number.
Edwards, a youthful-looking 53, explains his new insurgent's message in terms of what he has learned as a private citizen these past two years. After unsuccessfully seeking the Democratic presidential nomination and then serving as John Kerry's vice presidential running mate in the party's loss to George Bush and Dick Cheney, he moved back home to North Carolina (which he represented in the Senate for six years) and spent his time ruminating about issues, traveling the world, and working with charities and other volunteer groups to fight poverty. All this, he says, gave him a new sense of urgency about dealing with America's problems, and he is staking out the left side of the Democratic playing field as an aggressive Washington outsider.
Truth-telling. Opposition to the Iraq war forms the centerpiece of his campaign. Edwards says Bush and his policymakers misled the country about whether Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, mismanaged the Iraq war, and "just don't tell the truth" about how badly things are going. Edwards admits he made a mistake in voting for the war in 2002, and he has called on Clinton to also admit her error. (She refuses, arguing that the war was Bush's mistake, not hers. Obama wasn't in the Senate in '02, but he opposed the war as a state legislator in Illinois.)