Thursday, January 31, 2008

Presidential field further contracts

Another horse pulled up lame and is now out of the race. With the departure of JohnEdwards, from the presidential race, the field of 16 has been winnowed down to six (with four having legitimate chances of gaining the crown)—two on the left side of the partisan fence and four on the right (although does Ron Paul really count?).

John Edwards ran a heroic race. It’s not everyday that a candidate, with a wife battling cancer, dons the weighty mantle of presidential candidate. His announcement, back in December of 2006, elicited whispers from many and had the tongues of America’s talk radio magpies clacking, questioning his motives and even his manhood, for having the audacity to run, when his wife was ill.

Obviously, John and Elizabeth Edwards had numerous conversations about this and I have no doubt that it was ultimately Elizabeth that convinced him to take the bold step of running. I also am sure that they talked about what would end up being said about him and her, for their decision. You can’t be married 30 years and do otherwise.

In 2004, when he was forced to be the well-coifed and telegenic waterboy, toting around the message baggage for John Kerry, Edwards was a loyal vice-presidential sidepiece, for the senior senator. He served Kerry ably, paying his dues, but anyone that saw Edwards in person, out on the stump, knew that one day, he’d be out on his own, his own front man, with his own message.

It had to be major blow to Edwards when, on January 10th, two days after enduring another third place finish, this time in New Hampshire, Kerry came out for Edwards’ rival, Barack Obama. It was a blow that Edwards ultimately wouldn’t recover from. I’m sure it was also a deeply personal disappointment to him.

It is always enlightening to see what message a candidate builds their candidacy around. For Edwards, it was a brand of old-fashioned, economic populism. While there were some who questioned his sincerity, after the $400 haircut flap, but I think the message was part and parcel of who John Edwards is and where he comes from.

Edwards epitomizes the Horatio Alger myth. A small town boy, from Robbins, South Carolina, with a father that worked in the local textile factory and a mother that was a postal carrier, he became the first one in his family that went to college. Growing up in a small, close-knit community made an impression on young Edwards. He saw firsthand the struggles of working class people and it deeply affected him. While Edwards has the good looks and social graces to hobnob in the world of John Kerry, I don’t think he was ever entirely comfortable in that world. The John Edwards of 2008, railing against corporate malfeasance and what it has been visiting on the people that he grew up with and many others like them, was a man at home with his message.

When you craft a message for a campaign, there is some calculation involved. In today’s world of sound bite journalism and remote-control channel-surfing, the tendency is towards slickness, simplicity and even, vacuity. Edwards ultimate choice for his campaign theme was an interesting one.

Over the course of nearly 14 months of campaigning, hammering away on the stump, you become your message—at least if you have any measure of sincerity in you. Edwards became a populist preacher, even more fiery and impassioned at the end, than I think he was in the beginning.

During the time he was out on the campaign trail, he was representing the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the people of Robbins and even those of South Carolina with him. Once more, like Kerry’s failure to endorse him, being abandoned by the people of his home state had to be another body blow to him, this one especially personal. He finished third in his home state to a man with no substance behind his message and his other opponent, the Lady MacBeth of 2008, altering her message and inflection of speech to whatever area that she was campaigning in.

Economic populism doesn’t play well anymore. Its truisms are still relevant for today. Just like in the days of Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette and his Progressive contemporaries, corporations ruled the land. Back then, a candidate preaching a populist message got a hearing and certainly got coverage from the newspapers of the day. All too often, Edwards’ message got lost on reporters who lacked historical context, or economic understanding of that message.

For many Americans, they know that something’s not right and economically off-kilter. They are seeing gas prices topping $3/gallon, bread and milk prices going up weekly and their paychecks staying the same. Houses nearby are vacant and the grass is not mowed, meaning another home has been seized by foreclosure. Many others have seen firsthand what the global economy looks like, when they got their pink slip after finding out their firm was moving where they could find cheap labor. A $300 tax rebate check won’t help them.

All of these things are real and Edwards stayed on message, trying to pull the working class over to his side. Sadly, many of these folks, about to be run over by the corporate bus, opted for one of the two candidates that represent the interests driving the bus. Like the consumer that philosophically supports the local hardware store, but drive past it on the way to Wal-Mart, to get that length of kitchen pipe he needs to fix the sink, voters bypassed the one candidate in John Edwards, that cared about their plight.

I admire John Edwards. Visibly fatigued and clad in blue jeans, he stood with Elizabeth and his children on Wednesday and said he was dropping out of the race. I was pleased that he withheld endorsing any candidate, before he spoke with them. My hope is that he’ll forego an endorsement, but he’s earned the right to endorse whoever he sees fit.

Sadly for me and any other voter who cares about the issues that Edwards campaigned vigorously on, we no longer have a candidate that we can wholeheartedly support.

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