I still remember seeing my first John Edwards TV ad. This 12-year-old boy with 12-year-old boy hair, a tan, and a 45-year-old’s vocabulary came on and spoke for 30 seconds about the importance of Washinton helping the little people, just as he’d spent his career doing. And he smiled the entire time. I knew immediately that this man’s opponent, Lauch Faircloth, a 70-year-old hog farmer who looked like a 70-year-old hog farmer, was going to lose. And he did.
That was 10 years ago. Edwards, a political newcomer, narrowly defeated a weak Republican who held a seat that had chanced hands in each of the past three elections and whose signature issue that year was that he sponsored the bill to create the breast cancer awareness postage stamp. Edwards won both the primary and the general election that year in large part because his opponents underestimated his popular appeal. Here was a guy who had virtually nothing but vague platitudes to offer, had never run for office before, and had no name recognition.
What Edwards’ opponents failed to perceive was the broad appeal of Edwards’ considerable charm and outsider message. Here was a sunny-faced man with a warm smile and a vague, moderate message telling people he would fight for them in Washington just as he’d fought the big corporations here at home. He was good. Really good. And against weak opponents who didn’t take him seriously, it was enough to win a U.S. Senate seat.
Even the New York Times noted the emptiness of Edwards’s message, noting in an Oct. 25, 1998 story, “he has focused his somewhat vague message on improving schools and giving patients increased rights to sue managed care companies.”
Faircloth tried to paint Edwards as an out-of-touch liberal, but it didn’t work. Edwards had no record, and he spouted vague, moderate phrases that made it hard for Faircloth to land his punches.
Just two years later, Edwards was on Al Gore’s short list of vice presidential choices. Joe Lieberman just beat him out. Four years after that, Edwards made the cut, getting the VP slot on John Kerry’s ticket. It was a remarkable ascent for someone who only six years ago had never been involved in politics. Edwards got that far by sticking to his moderate, optimistic persona. And when Kerry wanted him to go negative against Bush and Cheney, he refused. He didn’t want to ruin his schtick.
Kerry’s campaign folks reportedly fumed at Edwards’s refusal to be the campaign’s attack dog. But Edwards wouldn’t budge, and some Kerry campaign alumni think Edwards was plotting his own presidential campaign already and was afraid to go negative for fear that it would hurt his chances in the future.
But then a funny thing happened. Kerry and Edwards lost, and the left got angry. The Iraq war went south and moderates joined liberals in tossing the GOP out on its heels. Suddenly Edwards’s entire political persona was worthless. The public, especially the Democratic public, was fed up and they wanted politicians through whom they could vent their frustration. Smiley-faced Edwards was not in fashion anymore.
And pretty soon, Edwards’s smile disappeared. He got angry. He gave red-faced, finger-pointing speeches. And he began denouncing his own record.
It wasn’t just the Iraq war vote. Edwards was suddenly against virtually all of the big legislation he had supported in his single Senate term. He was doing what he did in 1998. Inventing himself. Unfortunately for him, he now had a record. But worse, he misread the electorate.
Edwards’s new persona was cynically calculated to win the Democratic nomination. But in looking back to the 2006 election for his guidance, he failed to perceive the reasons the public had already come to crave change again. Just a year after sweeping Nancy Pelosi into power, the electorate had tired of the Democrats’ anger and partisan aggression. Congress’s approval ratings were lower than the president’s, and yet Edwards was still ranting away. Edwards thought they still wanted angry, and he gave it to them. But that’s not what they wanted.
Cheerful and optimistic is what Barack Obama gave them, and he beat Edwards in every contest. Poor Edwards was blindsided by a smarter, better more genuine version of himself 10 years earlier. Except that what Edwards pretended to be, Obama really was. Obama effortlessly exudes sincerity. That is the word people would used when leaving his campaign events here in New Hampshire. They didn’t say that about Edwards. At least, not many did. But they all said it about Obama. Edwards knew there would be a Hillary vote and an anti-Hillary vote. He repudiated his Senate record to get that anti-Hillary vote, but it went to Obama instead because in shifting his entire political persona Edwards didn’t make himself the anti-Clinton, he made himself another Clinton.
Obama now stood apart from Clinton and Edwards, instead of Edwards standing apart from Clinton and Obama.
In the end, the utter vacuousness that had lifted Edwards so far so fast brought him crashing back to earth before Tsunami Tuesday. And that is a truly fitting end to the presidential campaign (and political career?) of John Edwards.
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.