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John Edwards Gets a Makeover

By Gerard Baker

A long time ago, way, way back in the early 2000s, when the Democratic party toiled in the barren fields of political opposition, when the party's left- leaning, base-pleasing liberal elite seemed as attractive to most Americans as flies on their chili dog, when the entire nation seemed to be the political fiefdom of southern conservative Republicans, there came forth from the wilderness a man named John.

John was a young senator. Like a lot of ambitious pols, he was handsome and charming and could talk the hind legs off the Democratic party's lame donkey. But John had something special. He was that increasingly elusive figure in his beleaguered party, a southern Democrat. He had a good old boy's drawl that was as thick as the grits he ate for breakfast. He had grown up in some hardship in South Carolina and had a rare old story to tell about life in the shadow of the textile mill where his daddy worked.

It was conventional wisdom back then that only a southerner could get elected to the White House on the Democratic ticket. Like a battered wife who keeps going back to her abusive husband, the party had repeatedly nominated hopeless losers from the northeast who would bring it only anger, tears and the dull ache of regret. Only when it went with southerners, the moderate, centrist, God-fearing Carters and Clintons, had it enjoyed success. This John, with his winning smile and aw-shucks manner, looked like the latest version of the southern savior.

In the fullness of time - a somewhat truncated period by the historic standards of most presidential candidacies - he was anointed a serious contender. Al Gore, the party's presidential candidate in 2000 came within a hair's breadth of picking him as his vice presidential nominee - when he had been in the Senate for all of two years.

Having just missed that accolade at such a tender age, he was not to be denied four years later, and after barnstorming through the primaries, he was the last man standing against John Kerry, who duly elevated him to the vice presidential nomination. For a few blissful hours on the afternoon of Election Day 2004, the boyish southerner was the next vice president of the United States.

But there has always been something a bit phony about John Edwards. Sure he was bright and articulate and good-looking. Yet the only obvious thing that plucked him from the obscurity of the senate at such a young age was his southernness. In their superior, condescending way Democratic leaders simply assumed that, since he represented North Carolina and spoke like that, he must surely have something in common with all those Bible-reading, gun-loving southerners. The party had finally found its southern star.

In reality Edwards was always a fairly reliable liberal. Most of his votes in the Senate were closer to Ted Kennedy's than Zell Miller's. He backed partial-birth abortion, gun control and higher taxes.

He had two credentials back then that seemed to come close to fitting the all-important image of the moderate, center-seeking Democrat. In the Senate he had supported free trade - most notably backing the bill that gave normal trading relations status with China. And he had, like all ambitious Democrats in those desolate years, tried to demonstrate that he was no softie on national security. In October 2002, he voted to authorize the president to use force against Iraq.

Free trade was the first to go, in the glare of the 2004 election campaign. This wealthy trial lawyer who had made unimaginable millions, turned himself into a regular economic populist, a fierce opponent of globalization and free trade. He attacked heartless companies who outsourced their jobs overseas. The better this played with an economically uneasy electorate, the more strident he got. Since the 2004 campaign his populist rhetoric has sharpened and deepened. He has moved as far away from the Clintonite centrist economic consensus as it is possible to be.

Then, of course, his national security credentials had to be remade. As the Iraq war turned sour in 2004, Edwards was among the first to say he should never have supported it in the first place. That decision has earned him much kudos in the party as a brave move. As the Democrats excitedly examine their presidential field, Edwards' denunciation of the war has played much better than Hillary Clinton's equivocation (which of course has meant she has started to sound less equivocal). But was it really such a brave move to speak out against the war two years after he had supported it? How brave is it of someone who holds no elective office to say that he no longer holds an unpopular view? If that's courageous, I'm a Medal of Honor candidate.

So less than a decade since he won election to the Senate as the favorite son of the Carolinas, John Edwards' transformation is complete. From the scion of the South, the Democrat in touch with the voters of Dixie, to the screeching anti-war, anti-free-market liberal, whose campaign blogger-in-chief crudely mocks religious beliefs and crassly panders to racial prejudices.

The man who was catapulted from obscurity to the front line of American politics because he sounded like Jimmy Carter and seemed to think like Bill Clinton is hoping to win the presidency on a platform borrowed from George McGovern.

Gerard Baker is US Editor and Assistant Editor of The Times of London. Email:

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