Politics & Policy

Nice Guys Finish Last

It's now or never for Edwards 2004.

John Edwards would make a great first date. He is charming, smart, understanding, and well-spoken. He even displayed a good sense of humor by announcing his candidacy with Jon Stewart.

After a rendezvous or two, though, a girl realizes that it’s all about him. His smile, his modest roots, his trial-lawyer smoothness. If he wants a second date, it’s time to mix it up, show some oomph. The reality is that nice guys finish last–or, if they’re lucky, as someone else’s running mate.

In Sex & The City parlance, “Is it too much to ask for a little bad boy in your good man?”

Edwards has won one state contest out of 20, securing just 9 percent of the delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination. He has also pledged to remain a positive campaigner. This tactic worked wonders when Dick Gephardt, Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman, and Howard Dean filled out a crowded field. Edwards let his rivals beat up on each other while remaining above the fray. But Edwards now has the two-man race he was hoping for. And he is behind, with no sign of closing the gap before next week’s Super Tuesday showdown.

Should Edwards take a few swings at John Kerry? Call him an elitist who doesn’t know a textile mill from a pepper mill? If he wants to remain relevant, he has no choice.

“Hey, What About Me?” cried a New York Post headline yesterday, capturing Edwards’s lament that President Bush is attacking only Kerry. This is the problem with a play-nice approach to campaigning. Edwards is fading in the coverage because he doesn’t give the press headlines. Each day, reporters covering the candidate must search, improvise, and brainstorm new angles about the campaign in order to keep their stories fresh. In fact, reporters on the trail say the disciplined senator delivers the same stump speech day after day, down to the same gestures at the same time. That works for an audience seeing his energy and charisma for the first time. It falls flat with the conflict-hungry press.

In yesterday’s New York Times and Los Angeles Times, both pieces about Edwards focused on the horse race, a timeless campaign angle that loses its punch when one horse is lagging. He rarely draws ink for policy ideas that contrast with those of his opponent. In the Washington Post that day, even the Edwards article focused on Kerry roughing it up with Bush, with Edwards making only a guest appearance in his own piece.

In his repeated second-place showings, Edwards keeps showing up with flowers and losing the girl, time after time. He keeps getting close, but needs to close the deal or move on. He has to engage John Kerry. Not politely point out that John Kerry voted for NAFTA and he, had he been in office, would have voted against the free-trade agreement. Not simply recite his son-of-a-millworker tale again. He needs to be powerful, strong, and stark about their differences. In a dangerous world, Americans like a fighter.

Edwards might begin by pointing out that he is for the death penalty while Kerry opposes it (except, in a recent change of heart, as it applies to terrorists). Will he lose a few voters who don’t believe in capital punishment? Possibly. But he will lose far more by not seeming to stand for something that Democrats can already get with a decorated Vietnam veteran who is seen as a winner because he keeps on winning.

Edwards’s problem is that he has very few real policy differences with Kerry. This has left him to run on his personality and humble background. But the art of campaigning is to seize on seemingly small differences and cast them as defining issues–in short, to give voters a reason to stop flirting with Edwards and get serious.

If Edwards doesn’t show his aggressive side in Thursday night’s debate and over the next five days, he has no reason to question the motivation of journalists who will again begin speculating that the southern charmer is batting his eyes while vying for the vice presidency.

Not so fast, John Edwards. There are two Americas in the Democratic party. One that wants a down-home (though now uppercrust) campaigner from North Carolina to play nice with the other kids. And one looking for a politician who can spar with a formidable president.

If John Edwards ever expects to score, he’d better step up to the plate. Otherwise, George Bush will have a November date with the less charming John Kerry and Edwards will be left at the altar.

Sheri Annis, a Washington, D.C. media consultant is a veteran of several political campaigns.

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