Why Does John Edwards Leave the Job of Attacking Hillary to His Wife?

"I want to be perfectly clear,” Elizabeth Edwards said in a recent interview, before launching her attack. “I do not think the hatred against Hillary Clinton is justified. I don't know where it comes from. I don't begin to understand it. But you can't pretend it doesn't exist, and it will energize the Republican base. Their nominee won't energize them, Bush won't, but Hillary as the nominee will. It's hard for John to talk about, but it's the reality."

I have always liked Elizabeth Edwards, admired her both for her obvious strengths and her obvious weaknesses (how can you not admire a woman in her position who isn’t perfectly thin?); respected her for her courage in the face of terrible tragedy, as well as for her intelligence and honesty; appreciated the strength of her commitment to her husband and family, and even envied her for the kind of marriage and partnership that eludes so many smart women of our generation.

She has been called the “unfiltered voice” of the Edwards campaign, and there is obviously something appealing about that in this carefully filtered world. But watching her take on Hillary, again, saying things that are too “hard” for her husband to talk about, frankly makes me uncomfortable.

If Hillary’s negatives are a legitimate issue, why isn’t Sen. Edwards talking about them? What does it say about him that he leaves the “dirty work” to his more sympathetic wife— the mother facing incurable cancer— rather than carrying that load himself?

If he’s afraid of the criticism that would come to him if he validated the haters, why is it acceptable if she does it?

I’m the last person to recognize even a kernel of truth in Ann Coulter’s repeated attacks on the use of victims to say what others can’t, but Elizabeth Edwards is making the number one ranter of the right actually look like she’s onto something.

I’m not big fan of cat fights. When one smart and powerful woman takes on another, especially when she prefaces it by saying that only another woman could comfortably make the charge, I become immediately suspect. Too many people, many of them men, take too much pleasure in seeing powerful women go down together, both covered with mud in the end. The sight of two women in the ring with their gloves off tends to get more attention as a sort of freak show than the legitimacy of the criticism; the substance of the criticism gets repeated, not analyzed.

“Should she be doing it?” becomes the issue, more than “is she right?”

And when the woman who is launching the attack is herself— as Ann would put it— a classic “victim,” it’s even more complicated.

I don’t think Elizabeth Edwards is using her illness as a shield from criticism, but there’s no question that many of us, who feel free to throw darts at everyone, feel a little or a lot less free when the target is a woman writing goodbye letters to her children when she’s not giving speeches, and making boxes on her tennis court of their clothes so her husband will know what to keep and what to toss when she’s gone.

If we professional dart-throwers don’t feel comfortable responding, imagine how the other candidates must feel: no matter how legitimate the response, criticizing a sympathetic sick woman is not the sure path to voters’ hearts.

In the long run, though, it’s important that someone examine her charges on the merits, just as we would if her husband made them; otherwise we really are patronizing her, which she says — and I believe her — is the last thing she wants.

Are there Hillary Haters out there? For sure. Hillary is both more disliked and more liked than any of the Democrats in the field. The question is not whether it’s fair — on that, Mrs. Edwards and I agree that it's not. (But then, neither is life sometimes.) The question is whether it’s permanent and terminal to her candidacy.

I think it is neither. Hillary’s New York experience is the best objective evidence of what happens to Hillary Haters when they get to know her better. And the evidence from New York is unequivocal. Both in her campaign and in her tenure as a senator, Hillary managed to turn a substantial percentage of the haters (and there were plenty of them back in 1999 and 2000) into supporters.

Unlike some candidates, who start way ahead and win because they manage not to fall below 50 percent by election day, Hillary started her Senate race without the support of the majority and managed to earn it by the time it came to vote. Six years later, no one of substance was even willing to take her on.

You can say many things about what’s wrong with presidential campaigns, and you’d be right, but the one thing that always happens by the end is that people do get to know the major candidates, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. There are moments that become revealing windows, and allow voters to take their measure. Hillary Clinton the real person is not in fact the cold, ruthless, rhymes with witch that the caricature of “Hillary” has come to represent, and that will come through.

That doesn’t mean she will convert everyone. Far from it. There will always be people who resent strong and powerful women, and they’re not going to change their minds. I know, and regularly hear from, people who wouldn’t vote for Hillary if she were the last candidate on earth. But most of them, in my experience, wouldn’t vote for any Democrat, even if they hated him a little less.

Moreover, there is an aspect of voting, especially in the general election, that is always a “lesser of the evils” decision. If you look at the numbers for women, you find that more educated, upper class women are less likely to support Hillary right now than women with less education and lower family incomes, for whom she has become a symbol and a spokeswoman.

Why is that?

A few years ago, the conventional wisdom was that the women with whom she had the most in common didn’t back her in the numbers you might expect because they were the ones who were most uncomfortable about her decision to stay in her marriage, in circumstances where they themselves might have (or hope they would have) left. But I don’t think that’s the issue anymore. It’s history. What I hear from upper middle class women who aren’t supporting Hillary these days is much more substantive: they are concerned about her record on the war, her efforts to reach out and reconcile on abortion, her wavering on civil liberties.

It’s substantive, not personal. Fair enough. But the fact is that by the time the general election rolls around, these women, happily or not, will be voting for Hillary precisely because, on the issues they care about, she will be the “best” candidate, even if not the perfect one.

Even so, there is no denying that Hillary is a more polarizing candidate than, say, John Edwards; that hard core Republicans would be energized by her presence in the race in a way they would not be by a Southern white man. But there are two answers to that.

First, the same is true for hard core Democrats; women, minorities, labor— to name three groups— are more likely to be energized by the opportunity to elect Hillary Clinton than the chance to support a former one-term senator from North Carolina. Even more important, as George W. Bush so painfully proved to many of us Democrats, polarizing is not a synonym for losing; if being hated were enough to doom a candidacy, George W. Bush wouldn’t be where he is right now.

And neither would the country.

Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless. "

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

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, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.

Respond to the Writer