A LOT OF Democrats breathed a big sigh of relief yesterday when John Kerry named John Edwards as his running mate.
At the most obvious level, Edwards brings two things that Kerry has sometimes lacked. He brings personal excitement plus a capacity to connect with nonrich voters on pocketbook issues. If Kerry sometimes seems patrician and aloof, Edwards has a common touch.
More than any Democrat in the vice presidential field, Edwards is able to enlist culturally conservative, white, working class voters who may be gun-toting, abortion-hating, Arab-bashing, tub-thumping fundamentalists but who know that the economy is not delivering for them. At least some of these voters are willing to give some Democrats a hearing some of the time. That is how Edwards managed to win a Senate seat in the Bible Belt.
It's unlikely that a Kerry-Edwards ticket will carry North Carolina, and it may not carry any of the South save perhaps Florida and Tennessee. But that same capacity to reach culturally conservative but economically wounded voters will make a big difference in parts of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Michigan, and Illinois, which share those traits with the Deep South.
Beyond the value of Edwards to the ticket, the choice says something good about Kerry's judgment. It's no secret that Kerry was initially cool to Edwards. Kerry had better personal chemistry with Dick Gephardt, who superficially brought the same appeal to working-class voters. But almost any Democrat whom Kerry asked told him that Gephardt, one of the most decent people in American public life, looked like yesterday's politics. Even his stalwart labor friends did not go to the mat for Gephardt. Also, by placing a respectable second, Edwards earned the spot in a way that Gephardt hadn't.
If Kerry had gone with Gephardt, it would have reinforced the damaging sense that Kerry is cautious and conventional. By selecting Edwards, he picks a younger, more dynamic running mate and demonstrates enough self-confidence not to worry that Edwards's own charisma might upstage Kerry himself.
Personal chemistry, surely, is no basis for choosing a running mate. John Kennedy could not abide Lyndon Johnson but recognized (correctly) that he needed Johnson for the 1960 ticket. Nor was there any love lost between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in 1980. But Reagan, as an ultra-conservative, knew he needed someone from the party's moderate, Brahmin wing.
What of Edwards himself? His biggest liability is relative inexperience. But that didn't stop the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket in 1952 (Nixon was a 39-year-old first-term senator adored by the party's right wing). Nor did it stop Bush-Quayle in 1988 (Bush was a fogey and a moderate; Quayle, an obscure junior senator, represented conservatism and youth). You will also hear, endlessly, that Edwards's trial lawyer background will hurt him. Republicans, for at least 20 years, have tried to make trial lawyer a dirty word. They just don't get it. Corporate moguls who attend Bush fund-raisers may think personal injury lawyers are as hated on Main Street as they are in corporate boardrooms. But it plainly isn't so.
Lawyers like Edwards make a pretty penny for their troubles -- I would even agree that some are overpaid -- but mainly what they do is help ordinary people injured and maimed by corporate malfeasance to win some compensation. Republicans push "tort reform" to make it harder for ordinary Joes to collect and to punish personal-injury lawyers (who have an habit of contributing to Democrats). On balance, however, Edwards's trial lawyer identity will be another populist credential.
Which beings me, parenthetically, to filmmaker Michael Moore. The punditariat has been abuzz about Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." Is it sheer demogoguery, or is Moore "our Rush Limbaugh," opening up space for more mainstream critics of Bush? But the larger point is that both the press and the vast majority of Democrats have done a lousy job at explaining to workaday Americans why George Bush doesn't serve their interests -- that he is a phony. Moore leaped into the vacuum, wielded the one weapon Bush can't deflect -- ridicule. Moore showed that many traditional working-class Americans, written off by conventional Democratic strategists as hopelessly pro-Bush, are engagable. Yes, Moore would have done it even more effectively and honorably with a little less conspiracy theory and fewer happy Iraqi children. But he gave many pro-Bush voters pause.
Edwards precisely brings this capacity -- and without Moore's excesses. His economic populism was something the Kerry campaign sorely needed. It reflects well on Kerry's leadership that he understood that.
Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect.
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