Politics & Policy

Why Edwards Hurts Kerry

He's weakest on issues that matter most.

For several months during the Democratic-primary season, the political chattering class swooned over Sen. John Edwards’s “Two Americas” speech. But the speech–which may have been the single most important factor in earning Edwards a spot on the Democratic ticket–was carefully crafted to win the support of the Democratic core voters who dominate state primaries. Now, in a general election, the speech–and the man who delivered it–may come to be seen more as a good performance, and the work of an able politician, but an unsatisfactory answer to the problems facing America at this moment.

Perhaps the most notable thing about “Two Americas,” at least as it delivered from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina and beyond, was that it said nothing–literally nothing–about the issue of terrorism. Nor did the speech cover the war in Iraq, which Edwards voted to authorize. Nor, for that matter, did it discuss foreign affairs in general. In fact, the only mention of foreign issues in “Two Americas” was Edwards’s promise to restore America’s image in the world to “the image we used to have, America as the shining light on top of the hill, beacon of freedom, democracy, human rights.”

A look at exit polls conducted after Democratic primaries shows just how little Edwards appealed to voters concerned about national security. In New Hampshire, for example, among voters who felt the war in Iraq was the major concern facing the United States, just three percent voted for Edwards, placing him barely ahead of fringe candidate Dennis Kucinich. Among those who felt that terrorism/national security was the top issue, just five percent voted for Edwards. The results were much the same in several other primary states.

Doubts about Edwards and national security were also suggested in another exit-poll question which asked voters which single candidate quality most influenced their vote. Of New Hampshire voters who answered that having the right experience was most important, just three percent chose Edwards, again placing him barely in front of Kucinich. Of voters who said they most valued a candidate who stands up for what he believes, just five percent chose Edwards. None of that bodes well for Democrats’ efforts to cast Edwards as a credible commander in chief.

Party strategists will undoubtedly answer that in the general election it is the presidential candidate who really matters, and that in the area of national security, voters placed much more trust in John Kerry. That’s true. But given that the war in Iraq, and to some extent the larger issue of national security, will likely dominate the fall campaign, it’s also true that Kerry has chosen a running mate who is extraordinarily weak on those issues that matter most.


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