Every presidential candidate tells a certain sort of story. Some talk about being part of a great movement. Some talk about surviving an ordeal with a band of brothers. John Edwards’s stories begin with family, continue with work and solitary struggle and conclude with triumph over privilege.
He may begin, for example, by describing an incident from his boyhood. He came down from his room one morning before dawn. The house was dark, except for the blue glow of the TV. He found his father in front of the television, watching educational programming on PBS so he could get promoted at the mill.
Edwards clawed his way to college but felt like a hick and an outsider. Everybody seemed smarter. But gradually he realized they had just grown up with social and cultural advantages, and he could still outwork them.
The tales culminate with his great underdog victories. He defeated the insurance companies in the courtroom. “I beat them,” he says, “And I beat them again!” He got rich. He now has a chance to turn around and help those who grew up the way he did.
I came out to Iowa having read that Edwards had swung left this election campaign. He was going to outflank Clinton and Obama among liberals and then sweep his way to the nomination.
But out here it’s clear that the Edwards campaign is based on the same conviction that organized his last campaign: no one understands regular people the way he does. No one else can get out of a bus in places like Pocahontas, Iowa, and bond with the farmers, nurses and hairstylists the way he can. No one else comes from their ranks the way he does.
The theory of the Edwards campaign is that Obama will fade because of his inexperience, and Democrats in Iowa will be left with a choice about electability. Which of their candidates is going to be able to connect with working-class white voters in Ohio, Virginia, Nevada and Michigan? Ultimately, Iowans won’t make the same mistake they made in 2004. This time they’ll choose him.
And so Edwards tirelessly tours this must-win state, delivering presentations that have three major elements, all of them rooted in his working-class roots. First, there is his cultural traditionalism. Edwards will be talking about an issue, and his voice will rise and he’ll punctuate his argument with a ringing declaration of stern common sense. On education: “Parents can’t just drop their kids off at school and forget about it. Parents have to take responsibility for their children!” On immigration: “They have to learn English!”
Second, Edwards exudes a deep distrust of Washington that can sound almost Reaganesque. “Nothing is going to change if we replace one group of Washington insiders for another group of Washington insiders,” he declares.
And third, there is his belief, which is in tension with his distrust of Washington, that the federal government should be there for those who work hard. He is brimming with government programs — to create public-sector jobs, to provide health insurance, to shift capital to rural America.
If you had to put a label on Edwards, you’d say that he is a culturally conservative anti-Washington liberal.
All this cohered in January 2004, with his “Two Americas” speech, the best stump speech of the last decade. It was a tight, single-themed argument, weaving the story of his personal rise with a call to heal the rifts that divide the nation.
This time, Edwards is not as exciting a campaigner. But he is more substantive. He seems to have concluded that eloquence alone can’t make him presidential. So he talks less about himself and mixes his bromides with wonkery. His answers on everything from China to ethanol are filled with complex, multipart arguments. He passes on opportunities to be demagogic.
At the moment, he is being overshadowed by the two rock stars in the race. But his connection to voters is real. And so ultimately the question about Edwards will be what it has always been: Is there depth there?
In a 45-minute conversation, I found him vague about subjects like social mobility and globalization, in a way that Clinton and Obama would not be. Yet beneath the pretty-boy exterior, there is something fierce lurking inside. It comes out in his resentment toward those born to privilege (which helped sour his relationship with John Kerry). And it drives him relentlessly upward, even in the face of illness and tragedy.