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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Edwards the Amateur

Last week, I started my analysis of the major presidential candidates - first with a methodological overview, and then a look at Hillary Clinton. Today, I analyze John Edwards.

I think it is highly unlikely that John Edwards will be his party's nominee next year. He is the only major candidate about whom I feel comfotable saying that. I think that his fundamental failing is that he is a poor politician.

This was not always thought to be the case about him. Michael Barone writes the following about Senator Edwards in The 2004 Almanac of American Politics,

[Edwards] was the candidate most feared by the Bush political strategists in 2002 and early 2003; they thought his Southern background, his moderate voting record on many issues and his attractive persona might put into play some Southern and Northern states which would be safe for Bush against other possible nominees.
Edwards, according to Michael Barone, has been running for the presidency since 2001. That is a long time. This makes it all the more strange that - in his fourth year running for the people's house - he built an ungainly, 28,200 square-foot house in rural North Carolina. His house negatively affected many people's perception of him. It affected mine, too - but in a different way. It crystallized for me an intuition I have had for a very long while: despite these many years pursuing the highest office in the land, John Edwards knows very little about how to campaign. In many important respects, he remains an amateur.

What I think Edwards has failed to learn in these six years of campaigning is that running for political office is not perfectly correlated with persuading a jury. There are many similarities, to be sure. You "sell" a jury just as you "sell" an electorate. You sell them both on a narrative that explains why they are where they are, as well as a solution to the problem that has brought them together. However, electoral politics involves more selling than this.

What I think Edwards has failed to understand is that he himself is one of the products placed on the market. A good politician understands this. He convinces the electorate not just of the problem and of the solution, but also that he is the person worthy of the public trust to implement the solution. He thus conforms his public image as closely to his message as possible - so that the voters believe that he will do what he says he will do, and therefore that he is worthy of the office they are about to bestow upon him. This is a major difference from Edwards' previous profession. A trial lawyer must "simply" sell a jury on the problem and the solution. He need not worry about whether the jury believes that he will implement its verdict. That is up to the judge.

What is more, a trial lawyer has the advantage of a controlled environment in which he can sell. This does not exist in politics. If the rules of evidence at a trial are Lockean, the rules in politics are decidedly Hobbesian (the only real prohibitions are the difficult-to-meet standards of slander and libel). Evidence against a politician - in the court of public opinion - is whatever you can turn into evidence. There is no "fair" and "unfair" - there is only what the voters will believe and what they will not believe. [Political elites who decry this, who whine about "under-handed" politics are usually just decrying the fact that they were out-strategized. As if there is some code of manners that they would restrict themselves to at the cost of victory! For every "Swiftboating," there is an equal and opposite "Mediscaring."]

This means that - when you run for political office - you must conform your life to your political message as much as you are able. You must be the embodiment of the message that you are selling. Any small deviation or inconsistency - regardless of how irrelevant it objectively is - gives your opponent the opportunity to characterize you as untrustworthy, and therefore unworthy of the office you seek.

Edwards does not seem to me to understand this. If he did, he would not have built the 28,200 square-foot estate that he built. That mansion sends the wrong message about who he is. It allowed his political opponents to tag him as somebody who does not really believe what he says, and therefore as somebody unworthy of the office.

I personally do not think Edwards is any more of a hypocrite than any of us. Do not count me as one of the many who castigate him for the size of his house. FDR was the model of northeastern elitist patricianism, and he nevertheless made himself into the archetypical Democratic man of the people. I think there is something valid, and quite American, in that transformation. And Lord knows that - if I had tens of millions of dollars at my disposal, a cancer-stricken wife, and two young children who had just endured a two-year presidential campaign with another on the way - I would spoil them similarly.

Edwards' problem is not that he is a hypocrite per se. His problem is his lack of political insight, which allowed him to be tagged as one. He failed to realize that everything about him - including his house - would be subjected to public scrutiny, and that it all must conform to his message because, after all, the voters are judging him as much as his message.

The scuttlebutt now is that Edwards' fundraising for the Second Quarter is going to be weak. This is unsurprising to me. My intuition is that political elites in the Democratic Party are starting to understand that - however valid Edwards' message is, and to whatever extent he might be a true believer in that message - he is not the right messenger.

I think Democrats are well advised to abandon Edwards. The Republicans would decimate an amateur such as he. It would be brutal.

-Jay Cost