MANCHESTER, N.H. — What was John Edwards doing in New Hampshire on Wednesday? For Edwards, everything depends on the Iowa caucuses next week, where the polls show him in a tight three-way race with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But a surprise win in Iowa won’t matter much for Edwards if he can’t build momentum into later races, and there are only five days between the caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Edwards therefore swung through the state for a day to stay in the Granite State game, holding town hall events in Conway and Laconia and rallying volunteers at his local campaign headquarters in Manchester and Salem.
Or, to put it as he might, he was there to fight. “Fight” is the byword of his campaign. On the stump, Edwards talks about fighting constantly. He claims to have grown up in “a neighborhood where you had to fight to survive,” and talks about returning home as a small child “a little bit bloodied up” and hearing his father telling him “you don’t ever walk away from a fight.”
Edwards characterizes his career as a trial lawyer as a string of fights, too. And who does he want to fight now? There’s the “insurance companies” and “drug company lobbyists” who aren’t giving you the free pills that are your birthright, the “oil companies, gas companies, [and] power companies” who are destroying the planet, the “mercenaries” who are daring to make money off of defense contracts — he vows to “take their power away from them.” How’s he going to do that? By fighting!
“We have a fight on our hands — not with politicians; people misunderstand me sometimes, the last thing I’m interested in is a fight with a bunch of politicians — but I am talking about a fight with these moneyed, entrenched interests that are keeping you from getting the country that you deserve,” he says. One wonders what to make of this. How exactly does one fight against the entrenched interests but not fight with politicians? Edwards was notorious for his absenteeism in the Senate; apparently he wasn’t there enough to learn that the political process involves elected officials.
What he’s really saying when he says he doesn’t want to fight with politicians is that he doesn’t want to criticize his opponents by name, presumably because of the conventional wisdom that negative campaigning backfires in Iowa. But the whole point of his fighting theme is to draw a contrast with his opponents. He does this obliquely, which leads to some odd moments on the trail. Political junkies know that when he says “I am not one who believes you can take money from these people, sit at a table and negotiate with them, and get a result,” he’s talking about Clinton, and when he says that “anybody who thinks we can nice them to death, or nice words are gonna change anything, is living in a fantasy world,” he’s talking about Obama. But this often flies over the heads of normal people, like the middle-aged woman who asked him to compare himself to Clinton and Obama at the Laconia town hall. “I made reference to it without naming anybody,” he answered. “I don’t believe that you can take money from these corporate interests and sit at a table and make a deal with ’em … I also think, you know I think that hope is a wonderful thing, but I don’t believe that these people are gonna move or give up their power without a fight.” He still hadn’t actually named his opponents.
Clinton and Obama weren’t the only targets to conspicuously escape the wrath of the fighterly fighting fightiness of Edwards (which his campaign even manages to bring up when explaining why Edwards always runs late). Edwards almost never mentions terrorism, which makes it particularly ironic that he managed to get Pervez Musharraf on the phone yesterday. Benazir Bhutto presumably wasn’t killed by “moneyed, entrenched interests.”
MITT ROMNEY KNOWS WHY Bhutto is dead; as he campaigned in New Hampshire yesterday, he stopped several times to talk about the events in Pakistan and the threat of Islamic radicalism. He would have done this anyway — it’s a standard part of his stump speech — but the news from Pakistan made the topic front-and-center all day. “We understand that Madame Bhutto has been assassinated, and many, many other people have been killed, underscoring again the extraordinary reality of the violent radical jihadism that is spreading in various parts of the world,” he said at the beginning of a speech in Manchester. “It is not limited to Iraq and Afghanistan, as some would have you believe, it is instead a global, radical, violent extremist movement around the world.”
When Romney talks about Islamic radicalism, there isn’t much talk of killing the bad guys per se. Rather, he frames the issue as a problem to be fixed through collaborative action:
We’re going to have to take extraordinary efforts to bring civilized nations together from all over the world to help support moderate Islamic people and moderate Islamic governments, because in the final analysis, only Muslims will be able to reject the violent and the extreme. Our effort is going to have to involve not just our military resources, which need to be strengthened, but also our non-military resources. We need to bring together all of our capabilities — health care, financial capabilities, education, understanding of the rule of law, and together with other nations [we must] support nations that are struggling to throw off the threat of radical violent jihad.
One gets the sense that Romney sees Islamic radicalism — like health care and economic policy — as a problem that can be addressed with the same managerial skill that he showed as a businessman and as the Winter Olympics Organizing Committee president.
The contrast between Edwards and Romney — the Best Hair champions of their respective parties — is striking. Edwards wants to fight, fight, fight, and never negotiate. Romney wants to bring smart people of good will together and fix things. If you didn’t know that Edwards was the Democrat and Romney the Republican, you might be surprised to learn that it’s the technocrat, not the pugilist, who is talking about America’s most dangerous enemies.