RALEIGH, N.C. — It’s a new year, and as of Thursday morning we now have a new presidential candidate: first-term senator John Edwards of North Carolina. Appearing with his wife and Matt Lauer this morning on NBC’s Today Show, Edwards announced that he was setting up the obligatory exploratory committee and that he would seek to be “a champion for regular people in the Oval Office every day.”
Just a regular guy, is Johnny Edwards. This image, of humble beginnings in the rural Carolinas and a young family man here in the capital city of Raleigh, has long been his trademark.
Actually, “long” isn’t quite the right word. In 1998, he came out of political nowheresville sporting a button-down, a big smile, a pretty haircut, and a bulging bankroll, and defeated University of North Carolina lobbyist D. G. Martin, the choice of party leaders, for the Democratic nomination for Senate. In the general election, Edwards turned up the regular-guy charm some more, spending a lot of his money on TV ads in which he simply looked into the camera and talked about how regular people live and what they care about. There were virtually no campaign events, no big addresses, no hot-button issues. He talked about a Patient’s Bill of Rights, for example, but neither he nor his opponent, incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, spent much time debating the details. It was about proving that he cared about you and me, that he “got it.”
Faircloth, who until he ran for Senate in 1992 was a Democratic powerbroker himself, made the mistake that many Republicans and conservatives appear poised to repeat today: He wrote Johnny Edwards off as a trial lawyer easy to lampoon and demonize. Folks, there’s a reason why so many primetime TV shows and blockbuster movies depict heroic trial lawyers instead of heroic corporate moguls or entrepreneurs (Faircloth is a multimillionaire owner and investor in a variety of business enterprises, including hog farms and processing plants). Americans may resent their lawsuit culture, but they are attracted to its practitioners, especially those attorneys who stand up for us regular people against the big, bad businesses or big, bad governments (Faircloth had also served as a state secretary of commerce and as head of the state’s highway commission). Given the tear-jerking nature of some of his most-celebrated cases, involving maimed children and swindled adults, Edwards’s background as a plaintiff’s attorney is a political asset, not a liability.
Edwards was sorely underestimated in 1998, too. I remember hearing from numerous Faircloth operatives about how easy it would be to expose him as a sham, as vapid and glib, as fast-talking Johnny Edwards on the make. One Republican ad showed Edwards’s nose growing like Pinocchio’s as he told his latest whopper. Another ad featured footage from Edwards speaking to a group of fellow lawyers, and counseling them to take a particularly eye-popping piece of evidence and “blow it up” for the jury. The attacks were desperate, and they showed it. Ironically, the situation didn’t merit Faircloth’s desperation. Edwards ended up winning by only a slender 51- to 47-percent margin. Faircloth told me later that he had made a tactical error in emphasizing Edwards’s personal background, which helped rather than hurt the Democrat, instead of more forcefully pushing him on the substantive issues where Faircloth was more in tune with swing voters. That and a very strong post-impeachment turnout among black North Carolinians cost him a close race.
Democrats underestimated Edwards, too. Primary opponent D. G. Martin told me later that while he was convinced that Edwards’s bank account and speaking skills poised a major threat, many of Martin’s Democratic supporters had dismissed Edwards as a lightweight and, literally, a Johnny-come-lately. It was just a couple of weeks before the primary election that it began to dawn on statewide Democrats that sentimental favorite D.G. Martin was in danger.
I say all this just to encourage a more serious consideration of John Edwards as a presidential contender. At this point, he has about as much experience in electoral office as George W. Bush had in 1999 when he began the early stages of his presidential run. He has already spent much of the past two years, since being Al Gore’s second choice for vice president in 2000, as a frequent traveler to New York, California, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and other places where key Democratic donors and political activists reside. Like Richard Gephardt and Tom Daschle in Iowa and John Kerry in New Hampshire, Edwards has an early primary state next door (South Carolina, where he was born and spent his early childhood). He’s got personal wealth. And he’s still got the teeth and the hair.
Being the only southerner in the Democratic field (I’m not convinced of the seriousness of the reported candidacy of Florida Sen. Bob Graham) will be an advantage, as hackneyed as this sounds. There are legions of Democrats who strongly believe that history and demographics show their party can’t win without a southerner who can cut into the Republicans’ mostly solid south. Many of these are key Democratic donors, political consultants, and commentators with no hint of a drawl themselves. Their case is reasonable. While the deep south is probably lost for a generation, Democrats can plausibly claim to be competitive not just in Florida (which hardly counts as a southern state any more) but in the peripheral south and border states such as North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, and Arkansas. The general-election voters in play here are far more likely to respond to someone who sounds like them — you known, like regular people — then they are to the likes of Kerry or Joe Lieberman.
On the question of Edwards’s ideology, he has so far managed the best of both worlds. He has cultivated an image as a southern moderate that has some reporters lumping him in with the likes of Graham, Lieberman, John Breaux of Louisiana, and Zell Miller of Georgia. Yet in actual voting behavior Edwards is surprisingly orthodox, with a 95-percent rating from Americans for Democratic Action and an 100-percent rating from the government employees’ union. Somehow, with his grin and his telegeneity and his southern charm, Edwards has confounded attempts by his adversaries to paint him as a liberal tool of the special interests. At least Bill Clinton did had some moderate moments in his gubernatorial reign in Arkansas.
Both his regional origins and his vague ideology may well boost Edwards outside of the south. Remember that many states now have open primaries in which independent voters can choose either a Democratic or a Republican ballot on primary day. Assuming that Bush is breezing through the GOP race, these voters will grab a Democratic ballot. Many of them may respond well to a youthful, attractive candidate who doesn’t sound stuffy or scary.
Here’s some advice for Kerry, Lieberman, and other Democratic aspirants this year: Take John Edwards seriously. Don’t think you can beat him on his personality or his trial-lawyer past. Your party has been fully Clintonized, and many of its activists and voters are now primed to value youth, energy, and charm above anything else. Don’t try to contrast your hard-luck life with his. (Edwards’s son Wade was killed in a traffic accident some years ago, and he and his wife commendably sought to honor him with charitable works around Raleigh.) Do challenge him on the issues, where Edwards does indeed appear shallow and inexperienced.
And above all, try to be a “regular guy” yourself. If Johnny Edwards can do it, so can you.