One of the real puzzles of this campaign is whatever happened to John Edwards?
At first it appeared the Democratic vice presidential candidate might take the country by storm. Handsome and charismatic, he fired up the faithful at the Democratic convention and for a moment seemed to breath life into John Kerry’s wooden profile. Photos of the two families doting on Edwards’ telegenic children dominated the news for several days.
Yet now that we are deep in the campaign, Edwards has all but disappeared. Occasionally you read a two-paragraph story telling how he defended Kerry’s Vietnam War record before a crowd in Missouri. But that’s about it. Conventional wisdom says that even the best vice-presidential candidate can do little to help the top of the ticket. In this case the convention wisdom may be right.
But that’s not the half of it. The fact is that, far from the claustrophobic confines of the loyal Democratic base, Edwards’ message resonates very little. Winning elections, it turns out, is not the same as swaying juries.
“The Two Americas,” Edwards’ campaign theme, is not resonating. The reason is it doesn’t make much sense. What are the two Americas? If you draw the line between “rich” and “poor,” then by any conceivable standard Edwards and Kerry are on the wrong side of the fence. This is the richest ticket that has ever run in a Presidential election.
But that’s not the point. The real purpose of the “Two Americas” is to divide the country between “us” and “them.” “Us” is easy to define. It’s “us” — the little people, the hard-working folks who never get a fair shake, the good people who are embroiled by the frustrations of everyday life.
Meanwhile, “them” is the big guys who — as Edwards puts it - “get whatever they want whenever they want it.” That obviously includes George Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Enron, the billionaires — there must be a few more of them out there somewhere. They’re the ones who make life hard for the rest of us and by god, this election is our chance to pay them back!
That’s the way trial lawyers talk before juries. Modern plaintiff law is really an updating of old-fashioned rural Populism. It’s no surprise that the majority of spectacularly successful plaintiff lawyers — Edwards, Ron Motley, Dickie Scruggs, Jere Beasley, Wayne Reaud, John O’Quinn — all made their fortunes haranguing juries in Texas and the Old South.
The secret of winning multi-million-dollar verdicts is to portray your client as a “little person like you and me.” The best lawyers don’t just defend their clients. They defend the jury as well. They make the jury feel threatened by some faceless corporate defendant that “does whatever it wants whenever it wants.”
In this way, a jury verdict becomes an opportunity to “send them a message.” Tacking on another $100 million in punitive damages is a way of “showing them we don’t tolerate that sort of thing down here.” This is why first rural Alabama, then Mississippi, and now Madison County, Illinois, have become the “trial lawyer capital of the world,” flooded with out-of-town plaintiff attorneys eager to drag their corporate defendants before pliable small-town juries. It is also why Michigan — the home of many of those corporations — is one of the worst places for trial lawyers to do business in the United States.
“Us-versus-them” works in a backwater venue, where it’s easy to convince people they are threatened by outside forces. Taken to the stage of a national election, it wilts quickly. So far the best use of John Edwards’ “Two Americas” has been Rudy Giuliani’s line, “The reason we need two Americas is so that John Kerry can be on both sides of every issue.”
People know we are One America. They know we are now facing an enemy whose savage cruelty can only find its reference point in long-ago centuries. They know that dividing ourselves into “us-versus-them” only weakens the country and increases the chances that we will do something foolish to harm ourselves.
That’s why John Edwards will remain almost completely invisible during the current campaign.
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