In 2004 Democrats were determined to pick the presidential nominee who had the best chance of defeating George W. Bush in the general election. That man was the feisty former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean. One could easily imagine him mercilessly flaying Bush in debates before trouncing Yale's least favorite son in November. Primary voters, mistakenly betting that blandness and moderation would be a better sell, chose John Kerry instead.
The party of Hubert Humphrey and Michael Dukakis seems poised to make the same mistake again, whether with Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Polls show that two-thirds of Americans think the country is ready for a female or black president. But I'm a glass-third-full guy. When a third of the electorate tells you "we're" not ready for a woman or an African-American commander-in-chief, they really mean that they won't vote for one. John Edwards is more likely to beat Romney or McCain than either of his history-making rivals, just by showing up with pale skin and a Y chromosome.
But even aside from electability, Edwards ought to be the Democratic frontrunner. His populist campaign, bashing corporations and free trade deals that have led to a decline in wages, seems perfectly timed for an economy everyone admits is in a recession. (In truth, the current downturn began with the 2000-1 dot-com crash, but whatever.) His platform offers more red meat for the party's liberal base than Clinton or Obama: total withdrawal from Iraq in nine months, Euro-style healthcare, full financial aid for students admitted to public colleges and universities.
A while back I argued for electing Hillary to show girls that the glass ceiling had been smashed, that they could achieve anything. Then she repeated the biggest mistake of her undistinguished political career, voting for a resolution that supported Bush's campaign to start a war with Iran. It brought back memories of Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi and Benazir Bhutto, oppressive rulers who set their nations back. Clinton's gender doesn't guarantee the forward-looking leadership we need after eight years of--it's a bumpersticker clichÃƒ©, but it happens to be true--our Worst President Ever.
I never warmed to Barack Obama. Like Clinton, his legislative record is dismal--he repeatedly voted to send billion after billion of war dollars to Iraq. His high-flying rhetoric has the dubious distinction of inspiring us to...to...what? His soaring oratory, purchased on the cheap from 26-year-old speechwriters, signifies nothing. Sure, America needs a black president. But it doesn't need one who thinks, as Obama does, that the only thing wrong with our war in Iraq is that we're not wasting lives and taxdollars in Afghanistan instead.
If electing a woman or a black person is more important than what that candidate has done or what they believe, Democrats should draft Condi Rice.
John Edwards isn't just the most electable Democrat--he's the best choice. But the media is starving him of the oxygen campaigns require in order to thrive: coverage. Shortly after placing second in Iowa, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that John Edwards received a puny seven percent of national media coverage. Clinton and Obama got between four and five times more; their poll numbers were nowhere close to that much higher than Edwards'.
"The media goes to this very engaging story about a legitimate woman candidate and a legitimate candidate with an African-American heritage, and that drives up their fund-raising numbers," Elizabeth Edwards told Time. "Then the media folks say, 'See, that proves we were right to focus on these two candidates'...It's enough to make you tear your hair out."
But there's more to the Edwards story (and non-stories) than reporters dazzled by Clinton and Obama--contenders who, though they don't seem likely to make political history, add a bit of demographic flavor. There is no precedent in memory of the news media freezing out a major presidential candidate to this extent.
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The New York Times' own public editor conceded that his paper had shortchanged Edwards. "In Iowa...John Edwards is close behind Clinton in the most recent Des Moines Register poll," Clark Hoyt wrote on November 18, "yet The Times has given him comparatively scant coverage. Clinton and Obama have been profiled twice each on the front page since Labor Day, but Edwards not at all this year. Throughout the paper, The Times has published 47 articles about Clinton since Labor Day, only 18 about Edwards."
"I don't track our coverage by quantity," campaign editor Richard Stevenson responded. "In a qualitative sense, we've covered him pretty thoroughly, and there is more to come."
Some point to early missteps--the $400 haircut, the big mansion, even his decision to keep running despite his wife's cancer--as causes of Edwards' electoral misfortune. But the truth is obvious. Major media outlets--which are owned by big corporations--hate Edwards.
"Edwards was our pick for the 2004 nomination," editorialized The Des Moines Register. "But this is a different race, with different candidates. We too seldom saw the positive, optimistic campaign we found appealing in 2004. His harsh anti-corporate rhetoric would make it difficult to work with the business community to forge change." What scares the editorial board of the Register is that Edwards doesn't plan to "work with the business community" at all, but to empower government to re-regulate big business.
"What's really behind the media animus toward Edwards," Jeff Cohen wrote for AlterNet, "is his 'all-out courting of the liberal left-wing base' (ABC News) or his 'looking for some steam from the left' (CNN)."
When the media gets tough, read the overseas press. Kevin Drawbaugh, a reporter for Reuters, knows what's up. "Ask corporate lobbyists which presidential contender is most feared by their clients," he writes for the British wire service, "and the answer is almost always the same--Democrat John Edwards."
Drawbaugh quotes Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at the Stanford Group think tank: "My sense is that Obama would govern as a reasonably pragmatic Democrat...I think Hillary is approachable. She knows where a lot of her funding has come from, to be blunt." Edwards, on the other hand, is "an anti-business populist" and "a trade protectionist" who "would be viewed as a threat to business," he said.
Edwards scares me, too. He's the first candidate I've ever admired. God help me, I actually believe that he'd rein in the corporations whose boundless greed is bleeding the country dry. If a man with integrity and guts became president, what would I do for a living?