Raleigh, N.C. — According to national polls and years of punditry, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Someone should tell the Democratic party. Its leaders and activists are obviously trying to end her campaign before it begins in earnest. Just as obviously, many of them have settled on an alternative: our old friend John Edwards.
Motivated by a combination of antiwar fervor (unlike Edwards, Clinton has yet to disavow her vote authorizing military force in Iraq) and savvy pragmatism (she starts the race with among the highest polling negatives of any presidential aspirant in memory), Democratic bigwigs and buzz-cuts alike are throwing up hurdles in her path. The latest evidence was last month’s action by the Democratic National Committee to change the 2008 electoral schedule — placing the Nevada caucus just five days after the Iowa caucus and three days before the New Hampshire primary, while holding the South Carolina primary just a week after that.
If Edwards were designing the schedule himself, he couldn’t have improved much on this result. Already strong in Iowa, where the former North Carolina senator staged his national coming-out party in 2004 and enjoys a slight lead in early 2008 polls, Edwards has a growing following in the labor unions likely to be critical in Nevada’s Democratic vote and would obviously be favored to win his native South Carolina. New Hampshire would be Sen. Clinton’s strongest early state — as it was for her “Comeback Kid” husband in 1992 — and is the clear loser in the calendar changes. Indeed, New Hampshire party officials are reportedly considering a plan to move the state’s primary unilaterally, perhaps to as early as December 2007, even though the DNC has preempted such gamesmanship by blocking delegates won in any earlier New Hampshire vote from counting towards nomination. Why do it anyway? Because candidates expecting to do well in New Hampshire — still with us, Mrs. Clinton? — might value the burst of national publicity and momentum more than the relatively trivial number of delegates won there but not counted.
I’m unaware of any clear evidence that it was Edwards partisans who engineered the DNC decision — the elevation of Hispanic-trending Nevada, for example, will likely boost the candidacy of Gov. Bill Richardson in nearby New Mexico — but it sure is convenient. There have been other notable moves in this chess game. Harold Ickes, advisor to both Clintons, attacked the DNC move of South Carolina’s primary by suggesting that its result was a foregone conclusion and that it doesn’t have the history and significance of the New Hampshire contest. South Carolina Democrats responded witheringly, and whatever support Clinton may have enjoyed down south has withered a bit, too. Also, the continued defense of the primacy of New Hampshire has likely angered black and Hispanic leaders in the party, who have been among the most-fervent supporters of elevating less-monochrome states to importance in the Democratic schedule. Talk about taking the bait! Meanwhile, several media reports suggest that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and other colleagues have been encouraging Clinton to forego a presidential run, with the promise that she will have a clear shot at leading Senate Democrats — perhaps as Majority Leader, depending on electoral outcomes — when Reid steps down in a year or two.
There are good reasons why smart Democrats don’t want Clinton to bear their standard. Expecting to run against a divided Republican Party in 2008, in the wake of a discredited Bush administration, they do not want the voters’ attention yanked back to the Clinton years, only to have what they perceive to be a winning issue of ethics and honesty muddied by talk of stained dresses and missing White House accoutrements. The political professionals also don’t like the prospect of running a candidate about whom very few voters have not already made up their minds.
Edwards, ever the skillful trial attorney, has carefully read his jury — the Democratic base — and adjusted his argument accordingly. In his 1998 Senate race, he ran as a non-ideological, sunny-faced outsider. In 2004, Edwards shifted slightly to emphasize a traditional Democratic agenda on poverty while staying to the right of Howard Dean and the Michael Moore crowd on national security. Now, sensing the national mood and making a play for the nutroots, Edwards is a full-throated populist and advocates an immediate withdrawal of 40,000 troops from Iraq and a complete withdrawal within a year or so. My friend Rob Christensen, who covers politics for the Raleigh News & Observer, wrote this account of a recent reporting trip to Iowa:
In an increasingly partisan political environment, Edwards calls on Democrats to show “backbone and guts” rather than being guided by polls and focus groups.
The message is taking root among former Dean supporters such as Eric Fralick, 56, a writer and media consultant from Ames who thinks Clinton is too cautious and conservative.
“I am more impressed with him than ever before,” Fralick said. “I think Edwards is a plausible candidate. … I think a lot of moderates have moved to the left.”
Hillary Clinton as the conservative candidate? With the likes of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh in the hunt, the notion seems implausible. But neither Warner nor Bayh has much name-recognition yet, at least among Democrats whose professions aren’t in government or politics.
For the record, I think Edwards’ leftward lurch is an accurate representation of his party’s direction and simultaneously a stumble. Warner or Bayh would be a more formidable challenge to Republicans, particularly if either chose a retired general or a politician with substantial military experience as his running mate. But it is what it is. Democratic leaders have just socked their former president’s wife in the eye. How will she respond?
– John Hood is a syndicated columnist and president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in North Carolina.