From The American Spectator, October-November 2002
Sen. John Edwards, the always cool first-term Democrat from North Carolina, seemed just a tiny bit ruffled as he lunched with me and his attractive wife, Elizabeth, in the U.S. Senate’s private dining room for Senators. Asked by me to describe his ideology, he said he was in “the mainstream of America.” It was my next question that momentarily rattled him.
“What position have you taken in the Senate that you would describe as conservative?” I asked. The Senator and Elizabeth, who occasionally interjected herself into the conversation, acted as though this was a question they had not heard before. After an uncharacteristic pause, he replied uncertainly: “Well, I just voted upstairs [in the Senate] before you walked in here for a judge I think most people would consider conservative and somewhat controversial.” He added: “I think I actually have a number of votes that most people would consider conservative. I can’t catalogue them because I don’t think of them that way. I could give you an answer to that question if you give me a little time to think about it.”
That plea sounded like President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s request in 1956 for a couple of weeks to report some accomplishment by Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Actually, considerably less than two weeks had passed before press secretary Mike Briggs supplied me with a list of “conservative” votes by the Senator — all of them on peripheral issues.
My question and Edwards’s reply go to the heart of the prospects of a multi-millionaire personal injury plaintiff’s lawyer from the South to be the next Democratic nominee for president. In so many ways, Johnny Edwards (as he is called back home) has started down the path that took Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to the Oval Office. But there is one big difference. Unlike Carter and Clinton, Edwards has a voting record to defend.
THE SUDDEN ESCALATION of an Edwards candidacy in Democratic circles is less a testament to his qualities than a recognition of Democratic realities. The election of John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960 (arguably with a minority of the popular vote if the votes cast by Alabama’s independent Democratic electors are subtracted from Kennedy’s total as they should be) marked the last victory by a Democratic presidential candidate who was not a resident of the Old Confederacy. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas were winners, while Al Gore of Tennessee won the popular vote. George McGovern of South Dakota and Walter Mondale of Minnesota captured one state each; Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts also lost.
The formula followed by Carter and Clinton was clear: liberal substance and conservative rhetoric. They played it both ways, sounding moderately conservative but reassuring the party’s labor union-minority group-trial lawyer-environmentalist coalition. In 1976, Carter masqueraded as a covert anti-abortion candidate as he corralled the evangelical vote. In 1992, Clinton campaigned as a supporter of the Gulf War after first opposing it. They could obfuscate their real inclinations because they did not have to cast votes in the U.S. Senate.
Edwards does, and his overall voting record — putting him dead center ideologically in the Senate — is deceptive. The reality is that he is always a dependable Senator for the liberal line when it matters, as shown by these votes cast since George W. Bush entered the White House:
Opposed confirmation of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Solicitor General Ted Olson and Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Opposed Bush tax cuts and lower capital gains cuts. Opposed repeal of the estate tax. Opposed school vouchers. Supported patients’ right to sue insurers and HMOs. Opposed oil and gas development in national monuments and Gulf of Mexico. Supported additional spending for bilingual education. Supported limitation of anti-terrorism government surveillance. Supported needle-exchange programs. Opposed fast-track trade negotiating authority for the President.
There is absolutely no difference on these issues between Edwards and Edward M. Kennedy, the defiant old liberal lion of the Senate. But Edwards surely does not consider himself a Kennedy Democrat. “I think in terms of our fiscal positions on spending and those kind of issues,” he told me, “that there’s probably a significant difference between us.” Edwards’s staff reported that while he voted with Kennedy 87 percent of the time, his record was more like 33 other Senators’ than Kennedy’s.
The big difference is rhetoric. Edwards abjures the populist rhetoric heard from Al Gore and other potential presidential rivals. “I don’t think we should try to pit one group of Americans against another,” he told me. “I don’t think we should be against business. I think it makes us socialists to be against business.” While Edwards’s political posture is as the champion of the ordinary citizen who “plays by the rules” (a Clintonism that he employs) against big business, he is careful not to go too far.
VOTING RECORD ASIDE, Edwards does not want to be just another liberal. He convinced the conservative white voters in East Carolina to defeat Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth in 1998. I first met Edwards soon after his election at a peculiar venue: the annual dinner for the foundation headed by his senior colleague from North Carolina and conservative icon, Sen. Jesse Helms. Edwards received a pro forma invitation and, to everyone’s amazement, accepted and attended an event where the ideological orientation of the other guests ranged from right to far right.
The National Journal’’s most recent ranking of Senators in the current Congress placed Kennedy as the ninth most liberal Senator and Edwards as No. 35 liberal in the hundred-member Senate. The votes that separate Edwards from his more liberal colleagues, as supplied by his office, included support for protection of U.S. peacekeepers from the International Criminal Court, continued travel restrictions to Cuba, opposition to higher CAFE standards and opposition to voter registration for felons. None of those votes, however, defied the party whip. The vote he cited to me for a judicial nomination as “conservative and somewhat controversial” — backing D. Brooks Smith for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals — carried 64 to 35 and obviously escaped Democratic Party discipline. When a judicial nomination becomes a party issue, however, Edwards answers the call.
He joined a solid phalanx of Democrats on the Judiciary Committee to prevent President Bush’s nomination of District Judge Charles Pickering for the 5th Circuit from reaching the Senate floor (where he was sure to be confirmed). Edwards has claimed that he went to the committee’s hearing on Pickering with “an open mind,” but once there he came across as a carefully prepared trial lawyer.
Citing a cross-burning case, Edwards played the role of the tough cross-examiner. “Did you make a phone call to a high-ranking Justice Department official on your own initiative?” he asked. “We had….,” Pickering began. “Not ‘we,’” Edwards interrupted. “‘You.’ Did you make such a phone call?” When Pickering said he had, Edwards then demanded that the judge admit violating the U.S. judicial code of ethics. It was the nastiest exchange of the Pickering hearings. The Charlotte Observer characterized Edwards as “reducing Pickering to quiet mumbles and blank stares with the short, precise questions” that recalled his glory days before North Carolina juries.
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