Politics & Policy

Kerry-Hutz 2004

Will Kerry's pitch sell?

So it’s going to be Kerry & Edwards: the turn-your-head-and-coif express.

Already, the partisans on either side are declaring that the Edwards pick is either a cynical sop to political expediency or an inspired choice for a new America. As for me, I think it’s too soon to tell.

The conventional wisdom holds that vice presidents do not matter that much. I’m not sure I believe that. I suspect that vice presidents matter a lot, but not necessarily in a way that shows up in the polls. Veeps are props. They help the guy at the top of the ticket tell a story. If the voters buy that story, the veep pick looks brilliant. If the voters don’t buy it, the veep pick looks like the first in a long series of gaffes. Cheney helped Bush sell the story that the “grown ups” are coming to town to “change the tone.” Gore helped Clinton persuade Americans that the generational “torch” had been passed.

It’s too soon to tell what Kerry’s story is because Kerry remains an unknown to most Americans. He doesn’t have a good slogan–which is the topic sentence of a candidate’s story–and he doesn’t have a serious theme yet either. In fact, as Mickey Kaus recently noted, Kerry is becoming even more unknown as he campaigns.

This means there’s still time for him to seen as an opportunistic flip-flopper or a great new choice for America. My guess is that the Edwards pick will end up reinforcing whichever image gels.

For now, the merits, as far as the Kerry team sees them, are pretty obvious. Edwards is the first choice of the Democratic rank and file. His populist shtick is precisely the sort of red meat liberal party traditionalists love (I’m sorry but when multimillionaire trial lawyers who bought their Senate seats wax lyrical about the have-nots, “shtick” is as good a word as any). Even better, of the people on Kerry’s short list, Edwards is the most likely to appeal to the Naderites. Indeed, Ralph Nader himself urged Kerry to pick Edwards, partly because Edwards is a trial lawyer and Nader loves trial lawyers.

Edwards also satisfies the classic job requirement of a vice president: the capacity to be an attack dog without being so rabid that the voters want him put down. Edwards is like the cheery cafeteria lady everyone likes even as he ladles out so much inedible bilge.

Even more important for Kerry is the fact that Edwards is a “change” candidate. It’s no less true for being a cliché: This election is not about whether or not Kerry would make a great candidate. It’s about whether or not “we need a change,” i.e. whether or not George W. Bush–and Dick Cheney–should be fired. The Kerry folks understand this. Edwards is a fresh face. As a one-termer in the Senate he has studiously avoided the senatoritis that has infected so many of his colleagues. Most senators who run for national office have the unfortunate habit of boasting about how they cosponsored the Bipartisan Omnibus Reauthorization Initiative Nominal Grant of 2002. No matter how important such a thing might be, it still spells B-O-R-I-N-G.

Kerry’s strategists no doubt hope that Edwards can reach out to rural voters. According to the polls, the most vulnerable demographic in the Bush coalition seem to be non-evangelical rural voters. Bush still leads among them, but even small defections can have huge results in swing states like Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. If Edwards’s trial-lawyer-honed populism can help Kerry peel away just a fraction of that vote, Bush could lose.

That’s all great. But all of that works only if Kerry’s pitch–whatever that turns out to be–sells. Bush has several advantages. First he’s the incumbent and people know him already. So he’s less vulnerable to Kerry’s efforts at defining him. Moreover, Bush has his story. He’s a war president in favor of tax cuts and some “compassionate”–i.e. big government–programs. Kerry has said in the past that he’d consider himself an environmental, educational, health care, thorns-in-puppy’s-paws president before he called himself a war president. He’s modulated that since the primaries, but Kerry’s announcement today certainly sounded like he wants to make this campaign about domestic issues.

If Bush can succeed at making this election about national security, I think the Edward’s attributes will look like weaknesses. What are those weaknesses? Simply put, Edwards is pretty but not deep. His boyish grin can’t conceal the fact that he’s not particularly sharp on the issues. During the primary debates he fumbled on the basics more than a few times, sounding like he didn’t even know what the Defense of Marriage Act or the Patriot Act said–hardly irrelevant or insignificant pieces of legislation for a U.S. senator running for president. He may be the anti-Cheney, boisterous and bombastic to Cheney’s somber sobriety (sober somberness?), but that’s only a plus if voters truly prefer a hyper greyhound to a steadfast mastiff.

If Kerry wants his choice to be seen as a “unifying” and principled pick for what he and Edwards call “one America,” his opponents want to paint it as a craven sop to political expediency. Already the Bush campaign has released ads touting John McCain’s support for Bush and reminding voters that Kerry almost desperately wooed McCain to be his running mate.

The Bush campaign is right on this point. There are only two criteria that would qualify John Edwards as the second pick to John McCain. The first is if Kerry had a peculiarly narcissistic desire to only consider veep candidates named “John.” The second would be if Kerry only cares about winning. McCain is a war hero, pro-life, national-security Republican. John Edwards is an untested, one-term, trial-lawyer liberal Democrat. Kerry said he wanted a war hero and came out with Lionel Hutz. As Kerry himself asked his staff, What makes John Edwards think he can be president?

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