There is one basic reason why Senator John Edwards will do the inevitable later today. He’s just too darn nice. It’s hard to believe that someone who made a fortune as a trial lawyer can’t seem to find his “inner attack dog.” Yet, he seems to have a serious aversion to going on the offensive.
The CW from Sunday’s debate was that John Edwards finally got serious about going after Senator John Kerry. “Dems Take Off Gloves” read one headline from the New York Daily News. Well, if that’s their idea of the gloves coming off, remind me never to put them in my corner during a fight. Consider an absolute softball question that Dan Rather lobbed at Edwards: “But we know that likability…is very important to the campaign — charisma, whatever you want to call it. Does Senator Kerry have enough Elvis to beat George Bush, enough excitement factor, enough charisma, enough likability?” Given an easy chance to knock one out of the park, Edwards whiffed: “I know John Kerry. I like him very much…I don’t think this is a personality contest.”
Nor could he maximize another big opening, when he was permitted to ask Kerry a question. In an attempt to emphasize that Kerry was more of a Washington insider, Edwards asked, “My question is, do you believe we’re going to change this country out of Washington, D.C.?” Kerry dismissed it without effort: “Yes, because that’s where the Congress of the United States is, and that’s where 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is. And the answer is, we’re going to need a president who has the experience and the proven ability — proven ability — to be able to stand up and take on tough fights.” One wonders how Kerry might have handled the question if Edwards had phrased it, “Insiders in Washington have given us bad trade deals, tax breaks for millionaires, and failed to help Americans get health care. Senator Kerry, you’ve been a Washington insider for 19 years. How can you, as a Washington insider, be expected to change this country?” Alas, it just wasn’t in Edwards.
Indeed, Edwards’ niceness is so deeply ingrained that he could barely bring himself to attack President Bush. Reviewing one of his Iowa stump speeches, I noticed that Edwards only mentioned Bush’s name about a dozen times. And many of those instances were not attacks on Bush, but rather spiels about how he voted for George Bush’s policies less than any other senator and that coming from the South gave him the best chance to defeat Bush in November.
This was further evidenced in an exchange that Edwards and Kerry had on Sunday over Haiti. Edwards criticized Bush because he “ignored Haiti the same way he’s ignored most of the countries in this hemisphere.” By contrast, Kerry barked, “This administration empowered the insurgents” in Haiti. It’s one thing to ignore a problem, quite another to empower it. You don’t need to do a focus group to know which one better appeals to the average Democrat voter.
Edwards’ niceness did him in for two reasons. First, a candidate had to attack the frontrunner to overtake the frontrunner in this year’s primaries. That’s how Kerry managed to overtake Howard Dean in Iowa. The time for Edwards to go on the offensive was right after Kerry won the New Hampshire primary. On Sunday Edwards showed he couldn’t even do it at the eleventh hour.
Second, the Democratic base was clearly looking for a candidate willing to fire away at President Bush. That’s what led to Dean’s initial rise and, when it became apparent that Dean had far too loose a lip, what led to the rise of Kerry. Edwards’ inability to be tough on Bush was a fatal flaw.
There are surely elections in which being a nice guy is a big asset. Unfortunately for Edwards, this is the year in which nice guys …