John Edwards’ America…
John Edwards is running for president. He has gone to one of the most depressing places in America, the still-devastated, never prosperous, lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, to announce his candidacy. Surprised?
The big news would be if John Edwards weren’t running for president.
In fact, he’s been running for the last two years – not to mention the two before that. The e-mail he sent out earlier this week saying that he was on the verge of a decision is all about generating excitement and interest, not suspense.
Iowans are great people, don’t get me wrong, but no one who doesn’t live there spends as much time in Iowa as Edwards has in the last two years because they like the weather and the food.
And it’s worked, sort of: Edwards is running first in the early polls in that state, which he came close to winning on the last go round. He is particularly strong in rural areas, where retail campaigning is the only thing that works. As countless politicians before him have learned, Iowa takes time and energy, but at least it tends to reward those willing to make the investment.
No, the question for Edwards, now as it has been, is not whether he will be a candidate, or even whether he is viable in Iowa, but whether he has grown enough since the last campaign to do more than he did last time – and whether there is room for a third candidate in a race with two 500-pound gorillas preparing to enter the ring.
The first time I saw Edwards in the 2000 campaign, doing his famous “Two Americas” stump speech, I was dazzled. He’s the young Bill Clinton, I thought at the time. It wasn’t a big room, and he owned it. His stage presence was stunning. You could see immediately why he’d been North Carolina’s most successful trial lawyer, before running for the Senate. He stood there talking about poverty in America -- the two America’s, rich and poor -- and you couldn’t take your eyes off of him.
But he never grew. The fourth or fifth time I heard that speech was not nearly as impressive as the first. What else does he have to say, I started asking myself. By New Hampshire, it was wearing thin.
No one has run for president on the poverty issue in 40 years, and you realize why: most of us are neither very rich nor very poor, but somewhere in the middle, worried about our own circumstances, educating our kids, taking care of our parents, making ends meet. For us, the problem isn’t that there are two Americas, but that we’re still struggling in One.
Besides, he didn’t really have anything new or different to say about fighting poverty. Once you got past the theatrics, there just wasn’t enough there there.
One of the first things any experienced poll reader checks is the number for “cares about people like me.” A politician who scores low on that measure, even if it’s because he’s busy caring about the less fortunate, is going nowhere, which is what happened to Edwards last time around.
So John Edwards’ choice to announce his candidacy in New Orleans’ poorest neighborhood is both predictable and disappointing. Of course it’s important to call attention to the devastation and misery, and announcements are all about attention.
Still, if John Edwards has grown from 2000, this isn’t the obvious symbol of it. Nor is his “One America” website, which features two issues on its home page: raising the minimum wage, and fighting poverty.
But that’s only a piece of Edwards’ problem, this time around. There’s also the matter of the competition. Hillary and Obama are a lot tougher than Kerry and Dean. Both of them have more charisma, more fundraising ability and more star power than anyone in the race the last time around. If you want a fresh face who symbolizes the future, you have Obama. If you want an experienced leader who’s been there, you have Hillary.
In the south, where Edwards should be strongest, black voters dominate Democratic primaries. Can Edwards really compete with Obama for their votes? And if not in the South, where does Edwards go after Iowa to show strength?
Edwards can embarrass the two frontrunners by beating them both in Iowa. But then what? Recent history abounds with examples of candidates who have won Iowa and gone nowhere.
Remember Dick Gephardt. Edwards will need more than a one state-one issue strategy to be a factor in this race.
Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.
Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.