Politics & Policy

John The Platitudinous

He left no focus-grouped word behind.

The Democrats so far have offered three big heavy-hitters this week, Clinton, Obama, and now Edwards. Of the three, Edwards turned in the poorest performance. That seems a little surprising, but maybe it shouldn’t.

An Edwards speech is a little like cotton candy if you are a kid at the circus or at a ballgame–it looks good, but then you are shocked at how it melts away into nothing when you take a bite, and by the end you are left unsatisified. Like Edwards the politician, this speech lacked depth. He’s a campaign parrot who learned a few good lines during his primary run and repeated them last night in a cut-and-paste job of his greatest hits. And this is the guy from whom John Kerry is borrowing his message!

Yes, every politician will regurgitate his share of platitudes and vacuities. But at times Edwards seemed merely to be piling up nice words for their own sake: faith, family, responsibility, opportunity, decisive, strong, values, safe, stronger, respected. You go, John–don’t leave any focus-grouped word behind.

Much of the speech was near impossible to disagree with. Edwards opposes “negative attacks,” and he really, really opposes “the tired, old, hateful, negative politics of the past.” People all over the country who support “the tired, old, hateful, negative politics of the past” probably threw their remotes at the TV screen at that moment. As for Edwards, he’s in favor of a “positive, optimistic vision.” He supports a “public-school system that works for all our children,” and wants children to have “a safe place to go after school.” He values “hard work” and–going out on a limb–is willing to talk about racial equality “everywhere” in America. Because he believes “the color of your skin in our America should never control your destiny.” As for foreign policy, his over-arching strategic objective is to “bring the world together.”

When Edwards was not belaboring the mundane, he lurched into the ridiculous: his “two Americas” theme. The Democrats are supposed to be all about the middle class and “the middle-class squeeze” this year, but the middle class disappears in the Edwards vision–it’s just the one super-rich America and the America that is oppressed and yearning to be freed from its economic chains. This is all trope and very little reality. Yes, people struggle, but they do it in the context of a country that is remarkably fluid and rewards effort and aspiration of all kinds. Maybe Edwards forgets that one of his own platitudes is “This is America where everything is still possible.”

His arguments for Kerry’s strengths as a leader were mostly biography. I just don’t get how this is supposed to work. If you chase down a Viet Cong and kill him–which is, granted, very admirable–does that ipso facto qualify you to be president of the United States? If so, let’s find a guy who killed more Viet Cong than John Kerry, since he would be an even better president. All of this is very odd coming from a political party that in 1992 made presidential politics safe for Vietnam draft avoiders.

Near the end of his speech he invoked a fictional mother who has all the attributes that are just right for the Democratic message, lonely, working hard to pay her bills, husband in Iraq with the National Guard, etc. This poor woman was just a composite set-up for what was supposed to be his wow-the-jury line: “Tonight she’s got a lot of friends.” But this line didn’t come off quite as spectacularly as one would have expected. Maybe, just maybe, John Edwards let a little too much of his contrivance show.

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