Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Two Johns

In assessing why the choice of John Edwards was the best possible move for John Kerry to make, I am going to rely primarily on the well-reasoned points put forth by publius:

"1) Unifying the party. It's a very odd thing indeed when the DLC, labor, African-Americans, and Ralph Nader are all VERY excited about a single individual. But all have expressed strong support for Edwards. Interestingly, none of these groups are all that excited about Kerry.

(2) Senate. Senate. Senate. Southern Democratic Senate candidates are thanking the man upstairs, especially North Carolina's Erskine Bowles. Edwards can campaign and raise money for all these people. And most critically, the Southern candidates will not have to distance themselves from the national ticket.

(3) Ticket balance. Edwards brings more than regional balance (though he brings that as well). Edwards has shown that he has strong appeal among union workers AND non-union white workers (the latter far outnumber the former). He is also rural. Rural voters and non-unionized white wage-earners are absolutely critical this fall.

(4) Excitement. For whatever reason, people like him. The press likes him. Unlike Gephardt, whose selection would have triggered intraparty bickering, Edwards will generate almost unanimous good feelings and the "free media" will reflect that. He also comes across very well on TV, and will represent a stark contrast from Gollum Cheney. Gephardt is a good guy, but there was little evidence that the unionized rank-and-file (as opposed to the leadership) were excited about him. Edwards excites them, and a whole lot of other people as well.

(5) Downside. THERE IS NO DOWNSIDE - at least from a pure campaigning perspective (Edwards's ambition could create governing problems should Kerry win). Undoubtedly, the Republicans will attack him because he lacks foreign policy experience. Pah-leez. I'm sorry, but that's not going to affect any votes. Yes, in a world where voters are rational and weigh policy and experience before they vote, Edwards's inexperience would matter. But voters don't vote on these things - they vote on who they like (emotionally). As Exhibit A, I would direct you to the current occupant of the Oval Office - whose sole qualification for both governor and president was that he was born well and had a little (R) beside his name."

Thanks again publius for a brilliant summation. Now my added perspective:

On "Foreign Policy Experience:" First of all, Edwards is the Vice Presidential nominee, and as such Kerry will not be relying on him for foreign policy advice. For this, he will surround himself with an experienced team of experts. Even if Edwards were to become President through some tragic event or impeachment proceeding, he too would be able to rely on the counsel of experts, much like Reagan, Bush II and Clinton to a lesser degree (Clinton is such an avaricious consumer of history and foreign policy literature that he came into the job with an unusually high level of knowledge which enabled him to at least parse the advice of his experts with a greater understanding of historical context and cultural understanding - especially for a Governor of a relatively small state).

Furthermore, sometimes all the experience in the world does not lead a president to make the right choices or to formulate an effective strategy. Case in point is Iraq. Whether it be the choice to invade, or the planning and execution of the reconstruction, the "experienced" team around the inexperienced Bush has made one mistake after another, and many of them are basic ones that they should have gotten right. Experience is no help when you are blinded by ideology and absolute confidence in your own policies, which lead you to shun historical evidence and the analysis of impartial non-partisan experts (at least when those experts disagree with your assumptions - even the minor ones).

Let's put it this way, I was far more concerned with Edwards' experience deficiency before it became so apparent how incompetent the experienced Bush team was. In the current context, this argument simply does not have legs.

On "Ticket Balance/Excitement": The selection of Vice President is in many ways like the selection of a spouse: the wise choice is to select someone who brings balance to your personality, strengths and weaknesses. Someone who will fill in the gaps where you have them, and bring out the best that you have in common. Think Bush/Cheney. Cheney brought the experience and gravitas, though cooler demeanor, to the younger less experienced Bush, who had the ability and warmth to connect to voters. George H. W. Bush went the other way in selecting Quayle, someone who would bring a youthful exuberance to Bush's accomplished elder statesman, but the principle was the same. Even Clinton's choice of Gore can be seen as an effort by the less experienced, yet charismatic and gifted communicator, to bring in an experienced, though less likeable, insider with stronger foreign policy and Washington credentials. Gore was the steady hand to Clinton's looser personality.

In this vein, it is worth noting that the wisdom of the choice of John Edwards lies in his success in connecting with the electorate. This connection is due in large part to his perceived optimism. As has been noted by pundit and historian alike, the American voter tends to respond more favorably to a message of optimism and a positive image, rather than a pessimistic or gloomy outlook. The perception of the latter has been a bit of a problem for the Kerry campaign, but Edwards will balance out Kerry's criticisms of the current trajectory of the nation with a positive optimism expressed with an upbeat Southern warmth. This is something that no other potential running mate could offer - especially front runners Gephardt and Vilsack.

Which brings me to my second point. The warmth, vitality, charisma, eloquence and populist demeanor of Edwards will smooth out the rough edges of Kerry's perceived stodgy, dry, patrician, detail-oriented and somber persona. This aspect of the equation might be underplayed, but many voters make their selection based on gut reactions, not necessarily rational policy oriented analysis. In this regard, Edwards brings a heart to Kerry's mind, an accessibility to Kerry's aloofness, the ability to explain difficult concepts to the everyday voter to Kerry's occasional inability to translate, the narrative of the common man to a legacied skull-and-boneser from Massachusetts. Kerry/Gephardt would have been dry and drier, a pair of lifetime Washingtonian technocrats cut out of the same mold. All gray matter, no red-blooded heart. Edwards on the other hand, brings the pallid Kerry into technicolor. The perfect pairing.

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