Whether with the roomful of student volunteers who showed up at Broughton High School on Friday--during their winter break--or working the crowd of political veterans who attended him Saturday night in City Market, Edwards locks on his subjects, one by one, with blue-eyed attention and a megawatt smile, and who among us will fail to smile back or, awaiting their turn, not admire the scene? So that, by waves, it seems, there is painted in his supporters' minds the happy vision of Johnny in the Oval Office--and they can say, I know him.
One thing not heard in the crowds: Issues. Edwards' campaign isn't about issues, at least not in the sense that he's out to change the public mind about anything. Edwards' biggest "new idea" is that students going to public universities or community colleges should attend tuition-free in their first year in exchange for a modest work or community service requirement. This "College for Everyone" plan is a good one but it's not going to change the world.
Edwards is careful to exempt spending on the military and homeland security when attacking "unnecessary spending." In a major foreign policy speech in October, he ripped the Bush administration's "gratuitous unilateralism" and opposition to stronger international weapons and security agreements. But he said the United States had the right to disarm Iraq with or without the support of the United Nations Security Council.
He's for a new domestic intelligence agency--taking that function from the FBI--while also listing ways the legal rights of the accused can be protected. He's for more tax cuts, but not for the rich. It's all carefully balanced stuff meant to convince the listener that, hey, he thinks just like I do. Or "regular" listeners, anyway. "I think that the regular people in this country are entitled to a champion in the White House," he says.
In short, Edwards' campaign is about winning. He will rise or fall in the nomination season based, first, on his ability to identify the most widely accepted Democratic views and then articulate them better than the other "centrist" candidates (Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, for example, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota); he must also be somehow more emblematic of it than the rest--be the most regular of the regular guys, in other words.
Succeeding at that, he'll face a second test: Convincing primary voters that the centrist position is strong enough--is held by enough Democrats and independents, in other words--to regain the White House in '04, ousting the popular George W. Bush. To some extent, this is a chicken-and-egg thing. Edwards may have enough charisma to make the ordinary sound extraordinary and inspiring, in which case--in the manner of a John Kennedy or Bill Clinton--it becomes so.
Meanwhile, though, an issues candidate will surely emerge--Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry? Vermont Gov. Howard Dean?--to challenge the Democratic orthodoxy as too vague, or too wimpy, to win. They will push the party to be more progressive, and more aggressive, in fighting the Republicans. Issues candidates don't get elected except in times of peril (FDR, Reagan). But frequently parties choose them because they're tired of losing ideological ground and hope to pave the way for future success--as Adlai Stevenson did for Kennedy, or, on the other side, Barry Goldwater for Richard Nixon.
Which will Democrats choose, a "fighter" or a "winner"? With Bush's approval ratings sky-high, a fighter would seem to be needed--a setup candidate to position the party for '08. But the Bush administration is so right-wing, so intent on lining the pockets of the rich (to "stimulate" the rest of us, naturally) and bestriding the globe with for-profit Christian hegemony, that by the fall of '04 its failures could be apparent, at which point a winner will be much-desired.
This is the theory of the Edwards candidacy, it seems. Elizabeth Edwards, watching her husband Friday at Broughton, remarked that Bush got elected in 2000 because people liked him, not because they agreed with the Republican agenda. "John isn't going to lose a likability contest to anybody," she added, smiling.
In his new book, Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics, political historian Michael Lind describes the split among American Protestants over the Book of Revelation and its promise of a thousand-year reign of peace on earth.
Premillennialists believe this time will follow the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. They are the optimists, the social reformers. Postmillennialists believe the peace is ending, and that Armageddon will precede His return. They're pessimists who see no point in improving an evil, doomed world.
George Bush, the born-again fundamentalist, is the quintessential premillennial thinker, Lind argues. Day by day, he grows angrier and more sour.
John Edwards? If the country's looking for a postmillennial optimist in '04, don't count him out.
Bob Geary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.