Salon: The John Edwards Experience
tmorman at nc.nojunkmail.rr.com
Mon Feb 2 00:40:34 EST 2004
Great article up at Salon about that thrill Edwards can generate upon a
first impression: http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2004/01/31/edwards/
The ads Salon forces you to click through for its "premium" content are
still as insulting and deliberately confusing as ever, but this one's
actually worth the click-through idiocy, honest. Just be careful with the
three pages of misleadingly placed hyperlinks.
You know, now that you mention it, the article's so interesting it's worth
posting to the little-known bastion of free speech/assholes that is Usenet.
Bravo for hiring the person who wrote it, Salon.
todd paragraphs 11 through 15 and the first sentence of 16 are great morman
The John Edwards Experience
The North Carolina senator is more than just an optimist with great hair --
in fact, he might be exactly what Democrats need in November. But can the
party's most personable candidate reach enough voters before it's too late?
By Peter Dizikes
Jan. 31, 2004 | I first felt the full force of the John Edwards Experience
when he walked over during the middle of his stump speech at a town hall in
Rochester, N.H., and asked to borrow my copy of his position pamphlet so he
could wave it before the crowd. Sure, it's a rote part of the Edwards
speech, but let's not be cynical here: I like it when a presidential
candidate stops talking to several hundred other people to ask me for a
Then again, perhaps it was when Edwards brought the audience to its feet
with one of his climactic lines: "If you give me a shot at George Bush, I
will give you back the White House." Or maybe it was when he jumped into the
throng of well-wishers afterward, pumping hands and signing autographs.
Watching politicians is like scouting for baseball prospects: No matter how
long you do it, you swoon a bit when you see real talent.
I'm hardly the first observer to be impressed by a firsthand look at
Edwards, whose "Two Americas" speech has become a minor phenomenon in this
primary season. James Carville has called it the best stump speech he has
ever seen. Josh Marshall likened the effect of watching Edwards to being
"hypnotized." And Republicans have taken note: One party operative told the
Washington Post that Edwards could be "Clinton without the scandal -- John
Kennedy, from the South."
Heady stuff for a candidate needing an infusion of cash and a win in South
Carolina. Before too long, the Edwards speech could be like a museum exhibit
that political tourists flock to see before it closes, as I did in Rochester
last weekend. Still, Edwards' surge in Iowa and modest rise in New
Hampshire, built on intensive retail campaigning, suggests that -- more than
for any other Democratic candidate -- to know him is to like him. How does
Edwards do it?
Most commentators have focused on Edwards' speaking skills, honed over years
as a trial lawyer. But Edwards has also inverted the purpose of the standard
political address, normally intended to get the audience to feel good about
the candidate. The "Two Americas" talk also makes Edwards' audience feel
good about itself. Sometimes he is blatantly hokey -- "I believe in you" is
one of his concluding lines. But Edwards uses subtler tactics as well,
creating a feeling that he -- and you -- can confide in each other.
Edwards starts by introducing the idea of the two Americas: "One for all
those who are in positions of power and privilege ... and one for everybody
else." Clearly, we're all in it together. But Edwards quickly extends the
level of intimacy in the room. Let's discuss a political taboo, he says: the
poor in America.
"I understand why people don't talk about it," Edwards states. "For the most
part these folks don't vote. This issue would be way down the list of
anybody's poll issues."
Translation: I respect you too much to pander. Edwards continues: "The
reason we should talk about the 35 million Americans who live in poverty is
because it's wrong, and we have a moral responsibility to do something about
it." A similar riff about racism ensues.
These early sections of the speech warm up the audience but seem to leave
his critics cold. Who in a Democratic primary would oppose ending poverty
and racism? When speaking of "moral responsibility," however, Edwards is
using a line that could play better in a general election: Secular liberals
will hear it as a standard pitch for social justice, whereas more religious
voters, presumably in Southern or Midwestern hunting grounds, may well
understand the phrase as an affirmation of Christian ethics. Similarly,
another phrase Edwards likes to use, "working middle-class families," neatly
bridges a class divide that Al Gore never rhetorically resolved during the
Edwards' speech is, in fact, roughly as substantive as anyone else's. In
short order, Edwards makes clear that he wants to revise the Bush tax cut,
introduce an ambitious college-education subsidy scheme, see the Patients'
Bill of Rights into law, and introduce programs giving people incentives to
make down payments on homes and accumulate savings. His policy cake just has
a much thicker honey glaze surrounding it.
Besides, other subjects in the Edwards speech feel weighty to his audience.
Take bankruptcy and personal finance, for example. Families that were once
well off, Edwards announces, "are saving nothing. They're going into debt.
The problem that creates is, if they have a serious illness, or a layoff, or
some kind of financial problem, they go right off a cliff." Here Edwards is
being more daring. Bankruptcy remains a kind of social taboo in America, far
more prevalent than you'd know from listening to television pundits.
That's why you can always hear the crowd's approval when Edwards says he
wants to crack down on "predatory lenders, payday lenders, and these credit
cards companies that are fleecing the American people, every single day." He
continues: "I know that some of you have seen these ads. Don't you love
these? ZERO PERCENT introductory offer. Right. How long does that last? And
then the rate goes to 18, 19 percent. We can ban these kinds of abuses." The
senator may not be revealing his inner policy wonk, but talk about
television ads is a language voters understand.
All this leads to the climactic part of the speech, where Edwards makes
clear that his life story is one of defeating naysayers, first in the
courtroom, now in politics. His refrain here -- "I beat 'em, and I beat 'em
again, and then I beat 'em again" -- has been widely quoted. What's less
remarked upon is the way Edwards quickly links this riff back to the
"You can all relate to this," Edwards usually says. "You can ask yourself,
in your own mind. How many times has somebody said to you that you can't do
something? That you're not quite prepared for this, you don't have the right
training, or are not experienced enough?"
This is the heart of his speech, I think, the part that leads to the buzz
people get from hearing Edwards speak. Is John Edwards qualified to be
president? Well, are you qualified for that job you want, but don't have? In
making the case for his own candidacy, Edwards makes the case for your
advancement, too. Howard Dean may tell his supporters, "You have the power,"
but John Edwards makes them feel it on personal level, with an expertise
self-help gurus would envy.
Of course, hypnosis wears off eventually. But Edwards' ability to connect
with voters seems borne out by the numbers -- and not merely by his success
in Iowa. In New Hampshire, exit polls showed that almost half of Edwards'
support came from voters who made up their minds in the last three days
before the primary. Like Bill Clinton, Edwards tends to fare better with
women than men. Part of his support simply comes from his personal appeal.
Superficial as that may be, it's an element of electoral success the
Democrats would be unwise to dismiss. After all, if presidential elections
were decided simply by the issues, the Democrats would have an incumbent
right now. Most polls in 2000 showed that on issue after issue, voters
favored positions closer to the Democratic platform. This apparent edge
added up to less than the sum of its parts for Gore. In John Kerry, the
Democrats may have themselves a winner. Or they may have another Gore-type
candidate: A more experienced and knowledgeable politician than Bush, with
Vietnam service as a bonus, but an unavoidable awkwardness on the stump.
This is to say nothing of geography, which is virtually a raison d'être of
the Edwards candidacy. Perhaps -- as Kerry has been musing aloud -- the
Democrats can win without the South, by adding, say, Ohio from Bush's haul
in 2000. Then again, not only have population shifts made Gore's states
worth seven fewer Electoral College votes in 2004, but -- as no Democrat
seems willing to mention -- Gore carried four of them (Iowa, New Mexico,
Oregon, Wisconsin) by only minuscule margins. Perhaps making North Carolina
blue is a good plan after all.
Optimists and sunny-personality types -- Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton -- fare
well in presidential elections. Edwards, channeling Clinton, says his
campaign is "based on the politics of hope." Edwards may need more than hope
to get through the primary season -- but it's a good quality to exude in
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