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In Iowa, Will Edwards Divide and Conquer?

By Stuart Rothenberg

While the Democratic race has often, and quite accurately, been described as a choice between change (Barack Obama and John Edwards) and experience (Hillary Rodham Clinton), it has, in the final days before Iowa, become another kind of choice as well.

Democrats must decide whether they want a candidate who is angry and confrontational, and who sees those favoring compromise as traitors (Edwards), or a candidate who presents himself as a uniter (Obama), or a candidate who presents herself as someone who understands the ways of Washington and can get things done (Clinton).

While Clinton and Obama both acknowledge the importance of working with various interests, including Capitol Hill Republicans and the business community, to come up with solutions to key problems, Edwards sounds more and more like the neighborhood bully who plans to dictate what is to be done.

The former North Carolina senator is running a classic populist campaign that would have made William Jennings Bryan (or Ralph Nader) proud. Everything is Corporate America's fault. But he's also portraying himself as fighting for the middle class and able to appeal to swing voters and even Republicans in a general election.

Edwards certainly would dispute that there is an inherent contradiction between his populist rhetoric and his alleged middle class appeal. But his approach to problems is likely to frighten many voters, including most middle class Americans and virtually all Republicans.

For months, observers have noted that Americans are tired of the polarization and gridlock that has defined Washington, D.C. at least since 1994 (except for a brief period following September 11th). But if Iowa Democrats choose Edwards, they are choosing anger, confrontation and class warfare. In a sense, they are displaying buyer's remorse (from 2004) and choosing a more attractive, charismatic Howard Dean-like candidate this time.

Ironically, Edwards criticized Dean for being too angry in 2004, yet this time the former North Carolina Democrat has adopted Dean's confrontational style.

Edwards portrays himself as a fighter for the middle class, but his message is decidedly working class and left. The North Carolina Democrat's message seems well-suited for 1933 or 1934, but not nearly as ideal for 2008. Yet, Iowa Democrats, like many of their partisan colleagues around the country, are so angry at President George W. Bush that they might be willing to give voice to their anger by voting for Edwards at the caucuses.

Four years ago, angry anti-war candidate Dean drew 18 percent of caucus-goers, while populist Dick Gephardt drew another 11 percent. Edwards, himself, attracted 32 percent of 2004 Iowa Democratic caucus attendees.

But let's be very clear: Given the North Carolina Democrat's rhetoric and agenda, an Edwards Presidency would likely rip the nation apart - even further apart than Bush has torn it.

On Capitol Hill, Edwards's "us versus them" rhetoric and legislative agenda would almost certainly make an already bitter mood even worse. He would in the blink of an eye unify the GOP and open up divisions in his own party's ranks. Congressional Republicans would circle the wagons in an effort to stop Edwards's agenda.

Would Clinton or Obama fare better in the nation's capital? It's hard to tell, but the answer probably is "yes."

Obama surely wouldn't arouse the immediate resentment and opposition that Edwards would, giving the Illinois senator a far better chance of accomplishing important things during the first two years of his term.

And while many Republicans around the country revile anyone named Clinton, the New York Senator might not face as much hostility as some assume from Capitol Hill Republicans. After all, Senator Clinton has worked well with her colleagues from both parties, and she knows better than anyone how important it is to build successful bipartisan coalitions on Capitol Hill.

Just as important, a President Edwards might well find that his view of the American economy is built on sand. For while Edwards bashes corporate America and "them," this nation's economy depends on the success of both small business and big business.

Scare the stuffing out of Corporate America and watch the stock market tumble. That's certain to make retirement funds - including those owned by labor unions and "working families" - happy, right? Stick it to Wal-Mart, and their 1.8 million employees are at risk. Beat up on IBM, and you are beating up on their 330,000 employees. Take a pound of flesh from General Electric, Citigroup, Home Depot and United Technologies, and you've put the squeeze on just under 1.2 million employees.

So, Iowa Democrats are faced with much more than a choice of change versus readiness for the job. They will be deciding what kind of party and what kind of country they want. And they will be making an important statement about the tone they want in Washington, D.C.

The question facing Iowa Democrats is whether they want to send a message of frustration, or whether they place a higher priority on getting things accomplished in 2009. Edwards's bet is that, unlike 2004, they'll choose anger and confrontation.

Stuart Rothenberg is the editor of the The Rothenberg Political Report, and a regular columnist for Roll Call Newspaper.

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