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July 7, 2004

"I look forward to a spirited debate."

Posted by Phil on July 7, 2004 2:53 PM

So said President Bush when informed of John Kerry's choice of John Edwards as running mate, and so says he anytime anyone asks him about the campaign. When he'll personally join said debate is anyone's guess, but in today's New York Times, administration mouthpiece William Safire deigns to remark upon Kerry's pick.

Loftily casting aspersions with his left hand while his teacup rattles in his right, Safire hides his fear of Edwards's addition to the ticket behind a fig leaf of pundit disdain. For help, he dials up his friend Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. Even strategically, the two contend, the move makes little sense, since Edwards can't be counted on to automatically deliver his home state of North Carolina or its neighbors.

My own view is that Edwards need only help loosen the grip of the GOP's Southern Strategy, take those states out of BushCheney's automatic column, and force them to spend time and money contesting them--and I believe he will. Moreover, I think Edwards' Southern appeal extends far beyond the old Confederacy. He speaks a language voters in Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, and Pennsylvania will respond to. Let Republicans in their hubris satisfy themselves that Edwards can't win Kerry electoral votes in the South; he'll be busy winning the crucial swing voters up North.

But strategy is for chumps who don't know the fix is in. It's more satisfying for Safire and Graham to declare that Kerry's choice illustrates yet again the fundamental rot in his moral and political soul. "Charisma gap!" they agree. "Not a pick of confidence!" they exult. "No such thing as a charisma transplant!" they plead.

Apparently it would have been more sporting for Kerry to pick another colorless pol to join him, rather than a running mate who will lend needed energy and warmth to the ticket. A "pick of confidence," Safire judges, would have been the albino automaton Dick Gephardt, stolid and experienced, whom Safire praises with faint damning the same way conservatives gush over Joe Lieberman when they want to seem non-partisan. Of course it's clear why Safire is really sorry Kerry didn't pick Gephardt, but instead he mews that Edwards's public resume is too thin, and Edwards himself a policy lightweight. "In making his decision yesterday," Safire sternly intones, "Kerry should have kept that criterion of 'the best man ready to take over' uppermost in his mind." In choosing Edwards, Kerry "chose the political hottie."

Now, it's not like Kerry chose The Rock or Jessica Simpson, but this is fair, to a point, and lack of experience is why I didn't support Edwards's primary campaign. Right or wrong, though, this matters less when considering him for vice president, heartbeat away or no. More to the point, Edwards's public record is as long as George W. Bush's was in 2000--and his career before that was, arguably, a good deal more accomplished. (I suppose it's unfair to also point out that Dan Quayle was hardly a dignified elder statesman when Bush Sr. tapped him in 1988.)

Candidate George W. Bush, Safire notes approvingly, showed real noblesse-oblige in 2000 when Dick Cheney became his running mate, because obviously Cheney didn't add one gram of sexpolitik to the ticket. The Cheney choice, sniffs Safire, "was directed at governing, not campaigning." And there's no arguing with that: it was clear that Dick Cheney announced himself for viceroy because he relished the dark bunker and the levers of power; it was up to Bush to win the campaign on his own, with his shaggy-dog syntax and dumb, Disney-hero resolve.

But Safire's smug appraisal falls apart when he generously grants that Bush, in selecting Cheney, was also compensating for perceived gaps--and then attempts to make a virtue of the fact that Bush was covering gaps not in his political charm, like Kerry, but in his ability to do the job.

Safire then wisely scurries to the Edwards-talking-point buffet, tray groaning with insinuations and non-assertions. Edwards may look good, ladies, but at 51 he's "no spring chicken." He's "adept at persuading juries" (slick) and a "quick study" (slick) who in "only five years in public office" has "learned to half-answer and slip around hard questions." He's slick, you see. Just like another honey-tongued son of the South we know.

Acknowledging the potency of Edwards's "two Americas" primary stump speech, Safire calls Edwards "the happy class warrior, the smoothest divisive force in politics today." (It's unclear how this compares unfavorably to President Bush's coarse divisiveness.) Safire notes that, in their suspiciously "coordinated statements" yesterday, "both the patrician Kerry and the multimillionaire Edwards took pains to identify themselves with the 'struggling' middle class."

Republicans hate to acknowledge the existence of classes in America, let alone the idea that one or more of them might be "struggling" for any reason other than drug use, rap music, or moral turpitude. Why should it seem more suspicious that the two Democrats are millionaires than that the two Republicans are? Because the one thing Republicans hate more than a "class warrior" is a politician who's a traitor to his. Apparently the only form of hypocrisy Republicans disparage is that of a wealthy liberal trying to ensure equality of opportunity and a living wage for those able to earn it against the power and bottom-line pressures of big business and Wall Street.

It is part of the myth of American exceptionalism that safe working conditions, injury compensation, child-labor laws, and paid vacations came to the coal mine and the factory floor without the efforts of--and violent opposition to--labor organizers, political reformers, and government regulators. These--along with trial lawyers--have ever been the scourge of our grand free-market society, Safire believes, and if we never needed them before, then we don't need Kerry and Edwards and their disingenuous populism now.

But voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Michigan know a different history and a different present. In Bush's America there is an eight-lane expressway dividing those to whom his tax cut brought $300 and a layoff, and those to whom it brought $300,000 and a military contract. All Republicans offer the former group are the thrill of national militarism and the balm of moral righteousness.

President Bush has yet to create the first new job of his administration, and if Democrats seek support out of the growing disenchantment of those failing to find prosperity in his Darwinian economy, then it would behoove Republicans to acknowledge there is fertile soil for the strategy. Of course, I personally hope they go on believing the delusions of William Safire.


"the happy class warrior, the smoothest divisive force in politics today." (It's unclear how this compares unfavorably to President Bush's coarse divisiveness.)

Posted by: Kevin Reichard at July 8, 2004 4:06 AM