Published on Thursday, July 8, 2004 by the Guardian / United Kingdom
The Battle for the South has Begun
Edwards's Roots are Key to Kerry Winning the Presidential Election
by Sidney Blumenthal
John Edwards carries his log cabin with him. The son of a mill worker in Robbins, North Carolina, he bears the memory of his father taking the family to a local restaurant after church only to leave when he realized he could not afford anything on the menu. It was hardly a contradiction that he became a plaintiff's attorney, winning multi-million dollar decrees against large corporations, and a US senator without ever holding a lower office.
His unbridled ambition was further apparent in the first-term senator's run for the presidency; his theme of "two Americas" was affirmed by his biography, lending him the political quality of authenticity.
Edwards might well have been the Democratic standard-bearer if John Kerry hadn't early locked in the most seasoned operatives in the Iowa caucuses; as it was Edwards finished second. The Democrats decided to avoid characteristic factional warfare and to support the figure they believed could win. It was no judgment against Edwards, whose campaign was indefatigable, appealing in small towns and rural areas that had fallen off the map for Democrats. At the big Democratic dinner in March, where Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter anointed Kerry, Edwards raced to center stage to lift his arms alongside the next nominee - devoid of bitterness, and as public an announcement as he could make that he was campaigning for running mate.
When Kerry chose Edwards their complementary natures were obvious, down to Edwards' succinctness. By having Edwards, Kerry acquired his "two Americas" theme as one of his own.
And just as Edwards underscores the endurance of the southern Democratic tradition, he underscores the dead-end of conservatism in the person of Dick Cheney. The thread of the Democratic tradition in the south, now represented by Edwards, opposes that represented by Bush and Cheney. These southern politics have been in conflict since President Andrew Jackson split with his vice-president, the original theoretician of southern reaction, John C Calhoun.
The Jacksonian slogan was "opportunity for all, special privilege for none". But the Calhoun wing of the party triumphed, leading to the civil war and the long rule of the Bourbons, or local oligarchs. African-Americans were disenfranchised under Jim Crow, and poor whites, sharecroppers and mill hands, like Edwards's father and grandfather, were manipulated by racial fears and hatred of intruding Yankees like Kerry's ancestors.
The Bourbon Democratic party of the south came to an end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Republicans, no longer the party of Lincoln, absorbed the new conservatism that followed, converting the once solid Democratic south into the solid Republican south. But the Republican project was never as stable as it seemed. In 1976, Jimmy Carter carried most of the south, and twice Clinton broke off important states and moved them into the Democratic column. Now this mantle, worn by Clinton and Carter, and before them Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman, falls on the shoulders of Edwards.
Bush's supra-southern strategy involves exploiting patriotism, resentment and fear. The threat, real enough, is external, and it is brandished to maintain the status quo. His compassionate conservatism is an updating of planter paternalism. But his agenda is deregulation, low taxes and hydrocarbons. His politics in the south fundamentally rests on a division between godless them and God-fearing us. Beneath that, he requires a near unanimous white vote to compensate for the near unanimous African-American vote. If more than one-quarter to one-third of the white vote goes into the Democratic coalition, depending on the state, the Republicans lose.
The solid Republican south must have a solid white vote in every southern and border state to maintain a Republican in the White House. A single crack topples the entire edifice. That fragility accounts for the ferocious struggle in Florida.
The instant Kerry announced Edwards, the Republicans opened an attack on him as a trial lawyer. Yet, in 1998, when Edwards first ran for the Senate in North Carolina, his Republican opponent, Lauch Faircloth, spent $2m on advertising depicting Edwards and Clinton as "two tobacco-taxing liberal lawyers who are well known for stretching the truth". The ads backfired, Edwards won handily.
In one of his cases, involving a girl left brain-damaged by hospital neglect, Edwards told the jury: "She speaks to you. But now she speaks to you not through a fetal heart monitor strip; she speaks to you through me." The tradition for which Edwards now takes his stand is as open to demagogues as to statesmen, but in the mouth of a statesman it can undo a demagogue.
· Sidney Blumenthal is former senior adviser to President Clinton and Washington bureau chief of Salon.com
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004