Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Why John Edwards Would Have Won

Unlike the Commander in Thief, I'm not afraid to admit when I make a mistake. As a political operative, I began supporting and contributing to John Kerry way back in the fall of 2003. You know, before the Iowa caucuses and even while he was being called an also-ran in a large field of Democrats vying for the presidential nomination.

My rationale was simple: Smart guy, liberal enough, seems very presidential, plays U2 at his rallies and has the gravitas to knock Bush out. My mistake was in the biggest – and probably most cynical -- factor in my choice and that was Kerry's military record. A year before the election, I saw a highly-decorated war hero and, knowing the Republicans' default attack of making their opponents look unpatriotic, assumed that Kerry was the candidate with the most unimpeachable credentials as a patriot.

This is yet another lesson that we Democrats need to get through our heads. Never underestimate your opponent and, when dealing with conservatives, never sell them short on just how far they'll dip into the slime bucket to marginalize our candidates.

Of course, I was wrong in assuming that they could never attack Kerry's war record. A silver star and bronze star (both for heroism in battle) and three purple hearts should have been enough to make even a Republican show some deference. But not this crew. It didn't take long before Republican National Committee operatives looked under a Texas-sized rock and found the Swift Boat Liars.

And I think we should all know by now that no matter who we nominate, the right-wing lie machine will churn out whatever it takes to make them look bad. This is why we need to absorb the lessons we've learned over the last 20 years and why I now believe that John Edwards would have been a better choice for the Democratic presidential nomination.

There's an old adage in sales that you "sell the sizzle, not the steak". As we learned from Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and, sadly, John Kerry, having the most qualified and intellectually superior candidate does not mean you win. In Mondale's case, it means you lose 49 out of 50 states despite being far more qualified for the job than Ronald Reagan.

In a nation of the ill-informed and the dumb, an idiot shall be king. Do we need more evidence of that than the 2004 national race?

The lesson of Bill Clinton leads me to believe that Bush would be back shooting rabbits in Crawford, Texas if we had nominated John Edwards. As someone who was incredibly active in the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign, I watched with amazement as Clinton deflected the attacks against him like Superman with bullets bouncing off him.

Draft dodger. Womanizer. Pot smoker. Unpatriotic. The Republicans threw the kitchen sink at our guy and he kept bouncing back. By the time the debates took place, Clinton's focus on message and, more importantly, his personal magnetism and appeal made those debates something that merely sealed the deal. Some will say he won based on a campaign team that many political historians believe ran the best campaign of the last century. While I yield to no man in my regard for the Carville/Begala/Stephanopoulos juggernaut, Bill Clinton's grit and personal charisma got him elected.

(Imagine the frustrations felt by the right wing when, after severely wounding himself with the Monica Lewinsky affair, President Clinton still left office with approval ratings that George W. Bush would sell the country to achieve.)

While not nearly as qualified to be president as Kerry, John Edwards had the proverbial "sun in his face". Even when I was strongly supporting Kerry early in the primary season, I had to admit to myself that I enjoyed listening to Edwards more and loved watching him work a room. The guy was dripping with Southern charm and, with so much of the vote for Kerry driven by sheer disgust with Bush, Edwards would have picked up Kerry's 49 percent of the vote and then some.

That tired old poll of "which candidate would you rather go to a barbeque with?" would have been won by our side and not by the Republicans.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the Republicans would have made up some damning charge against Senator Edwards. Lawsuit Victims For Truth, anyone? Maybe that he fathered 10 illegitimate trial lawyers? Whatever sludge they pulled from the RNC slime well would not have prevailed.

Like Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Edwards' personal and political skills would have carried the day. He may have had the same razor-thin margin of victory that John Kennedy did in 1960 but he would have won.

We have much bigger fish to fry right now than worrying about our 2008 presidential nominee. But we need to keep one thing in mind when that time comes. Sell the sizzle not the steak. We don't live in a country of deep thinkers and whoever has the strength of personality and appeal to dodge Republican bullets and lies will be the next Democratic president.