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.
Not all North Carolinians and Southerners, however, were impressed by Edwards’s eagerness to make points at Pickering’s expense. Although every point on which Edwards confronted the judge had a racial connotation, Edwards stressed that his objection to Pickering did not have a racial basis and was “based entirely on his judicial record.” That did not satisfy Edwards’s fellow rich Democratic trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs of Pascagoula, Mississippi, who had vouched for Pickering. Scruggs was appalled when Edwards rejected his advice on the dubious grounds that the distinguished judge lacked a judicial temperament.
A furious Scruggs, a major contributor to Democratic candidates, vowed that he would no longer support Edwards and would urge other trial lawyers to follow his example. That would undermine the Senator’s presidential finance base. A Roll Call analysis earlier this year showed that of $1.4 million in campaign funds he had raised up to that point, 86 percent came from trial lawyers.
Yet, the Scruggs ultimatum was not entirely bad news from the standpoint of Edwards advisers. With national African-American organizations lobbying hard against Pickering, strategists for the Senator thought it would be better to be aligned with black leaders rather than Dickie Scruggs. In fact, the association with trial lawyers has been a mixed bag for Edwards.
BORN TO TWO SOUTH Carolina mill workers, Edwards is the first member of his family to attend college. What propelled him into the top rank of his state’s political leaders was his golden-voiced ability to convince juries to award huge damage settlements, netting a tidy personal fortune (estimated at around $15 million) that set up his run for the Senate in 1998 and helped finance his triumph against better known candidates. Personally contributing $6 million of the $8 million he spent on the Senate election, he achieved his first public office at age 45.
When less than two years later political consultants Bob Shrum and Tad Devine began to press Al Gore to pick Edwards as his running mate, the notion of selecting a rich trial lawyer for vice president appalled conventional thinking in the party. Ed Rendell, then the national party’s general chairman, wondered aloud for anybody to hear: “Are we really going to put on a ticket a guy whose experience is in trying personal injury cases?” The answer from Democratic activists generally was “no.”
In the Senate, Edwards has voted the straight trial lawyer line (as do nearly all his Democratic colleagues, without having made a fortune before the bar). Characteristically, however, he depicts himself as open to reform. “A lot of what you hear people talk about is frivolous litigation, frivolous law suits,” he told me. “You could put me in the camp of people who think that’s a serious issue that the court system and the Congress ought to be willing to address.” But only up to a point. “What I’m not open to,” said Edwards, is the heart of tort reform: placing caps on awards of damages because “that takes power away from a jury and diminishes the rights of either side.” Nevertheless, Edwards’s suggestion of the need for a little tort reform shows that he recognizes the political liabilities inherent in the occupation that has brought him fortune and fame.
About two decades ago, the trial lawyers joined organized labor and minority groups as pillars of the new Democratic coalition (since augmented by the greens). Given this political base, the lawyers lobby has won protection for damage suits that threaten business and enrich a handful of litigators. The issue is presented by the party’s activists — as well as Hollywood’s depictions — as champions of the common man against the corporate monolith. Edwards did so in his skilled campaign for the Senate.
He would face a more difficult task in convincing the American people to put a trial lawyer in the Oval Office.
Gore decided against the risk of a politically inexperienced personal injury lawyer as his running mate, rejecting the advice of his consultants, and opted for an only slightly less unorthodox option in Sen. Joe Lieberman. It was a choice that may well have lost Gore the presidency. Assuming that Edwards would not have cost any state actually carried by Gore, he would have pushed the ticket over the top by just winning one Southern state (such as his own North Carolina). That widely held analysis pushed Edwards into the forefront of speculation for the 2004 presidential nomination.
Such speculation is not the product of an overpowering first term, reminiscent of Robert A. Taft’s or Lyndon B. Johnson’s. Even Jack Kennedy’s modest Senate accomplishments dwarf what Edwards has done. Edwards takes the Senate floor more than rookie Senators once did, but his oratory sounds more like a trial lawyer quietly trying to convince a jury than a full-throated appeal to the masses in the Ted Kennedy style. Behind the scenes, his major effort was a partnership with Republican maverick Sen. John McCain (who has become a close friend) in pressing for the right to sue HMOs.
His political assets transcend his Southern accent. He looks ten years younger than his 49 years and People magazine has designated him America’s “sexiest politician.” If his good looks verge on prettiness, there is an unmistakable sweetness about him — a word never used in connection with Carter or Clinton. The other side of Edwards is the tenacious litigator who battered Charles Pickering. Still, he passes the likability test, flunked by Gore in 2000.
To Democrats looking for a savior, Edwards appears to be Carter without the prevarication and Clinton without the sleaze. He told me he thinks “through the eyes of the people that I think we have to appeal to. You know, the people in our area who live that small town [life] of North Carolina and the people who live like that all over the country. I think they really do want and care about their leaders being good people. You know, they wonder if they’re a father, are they a good father? If they’re a husband, if they’re a good husband. If they’re a person of faith, they should be proud of that — that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
The reference to being a good husband is clearly not Clinton talk, and nobody has ever questioned Edwards’s marital fidelity.
BUT IS EDWARDS READY for prime time? He definitely was not on NBC’s Meet the Press May 5 when he could not cope with moderator Tim Russert, whose straight questions evoked evasive answers. When asked whether he would respond to his own contentions of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan by sending more American troops, Edwards replied: “No. What I would do is show leadership.” When asked whether President Bush should negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Edwards replied: “I think that’s a decision he needs to make.”
It got worse when Russert turned to domestic policy. Would he support Kennedy’s proposal to rescind the Bush tax cuts? First he said, “I don’t support that plan,” then equivocated: “Well, at the end of the day, it may be necessary to do something about part of the tax cut, but I think if we do something about part of the tax cut, we need to be very clear about what it’s being used for.”
The air at least temporarily went out of the Edwards balloon as Democrats around the country doubted whether this stumbling neophyte was really their savior. Edwards supporters went into denial about his flabby performance, but not the Senator. In his car on the way home from the NBC studio, he commented to aides that he had really blown it. He said much the same to me two months later.
Was he not fully prepared? “No,” Edwards said, “I think I was fully prepared. I think I was not being as direct about some of the questions that I should’ve been. I think it’s fair criticism.” Specifically, he regretted his equivocation on the Kennedy tax rollback. “I had an opinion when I was sitting there, and I didn’t say it.” And that opinion? “My opinion is that the top layer of the tax cuts that are scheduled to go into effect in ’04 should not go into effect.”
Having traveled the early presidential circuit to New Hampshire, Iowa and elsewhere, Edwards is increasingly less coy about his intentions. Once a week when Congress is in session, on “Tarheel Day,” he meets with visiting North Carolina constituents in Washington. On the week before our lunch, Edwards began by talking about corporate reform, prescription drug subsidies and HMO regulation. But that was not what the visiting Tarheels were interested in.
“I read in the newspaper that you’re actually campaigning for the presidential election,” noted the first questioner. Answer: “It is something I’m considering, but haven’t made a final decision.”
The next questioner asked about his poor standing in the polls. Answer: “Once people start to hear that, they either agree with you or disagree with you. But it takes time for that to happen.”
Edwards completed the brief session by talking about what he considers fiscal integrity: “The same way that your family has to manage its own funds. I mean, you have decide what you can pay for, what you can’t pay for, and how much money you’re going to have coming in. We should be able to manage the federal government in many ways the same.”
Democratic insiders consider the task awaiting Edwards as difficult but not impossible. In a crowded field likely to include Gore, he must somehow make a strong showing in either Iowa or New Hampshire to survive in the foreshortened primary election schedule. George W. Bush should be rooting against him, considering the experience of Gerald Ford and his own father against crafty Southern politicians with a moderate façade.