Edwards' Wisconsin Surge Could Spell Trouble for Kerry

There is a chance that the bizarre Democratic primaries could get very interesting if Senator Edwards has the guts to pull out the stops. Let’s be honest. We know for certain that Senator Kerry was unattractive to most Democratic voters when the season began and that he only caught fire as a result of Howard Dean’s implosion. This led to an involuntary assignment of his momentum to Kerry in one of the largest transferences of hostility known to modern psychology. This is important, because it wasn’t as if prior to Dean’s freefall Kerry’s voice was being suppressed. No, he had plenty of exposure, and voters were singularly unimpressed. Nor did he become the assignee of Dean’s hate wave because he was the next most exciting, energizing and attractive candidate. It was precisely the opposite. The Deaniacs, except for the hard-core ones that stayed with the fireplug way past his funeral, became — with the significant prodding of the press — queasy about his volatility and irascibility. They turned to Kerry because as boring, unenergetic and uninspiring, as he is, at least he doesn’t seem crazy. His apparent stability and “experience” at once made him “electable.” And it didn’t hurt that with respect to policy Kerry is an accomplished chameleon. He’ll be whatever the relevant voting pool wants at the time. And at that time, they wanted someone as antiwar and anti-Bush as Mad Deano. So Kerry turned his skin to the color “Dean.” Kerry might be “electable” compared to wild Howard, but in order to be truly electable you have to be appealing personally or ideologically. Kerry was neither before Dean threw himself down the staircase, and he remains neither today. But the Dean voters Kerry serendipitously acquired were being guided more by emotion — specifically an antipathy toward Bush — than reason. So, for the most part, they didn’t even think twice about what was underneath Kerry’s latest layer of skin, and Kerry certainly didn’t volunteer it. He was just riding the anti-Bush wave, changing his positions at will and never having to come up with an organizing philosophy — a platform. (Which, by the way, is why it is such a stretch for Kerry to thank his supporters for helping to move his cause forward. He has no cause!) In walked John Edwards, who does have a coherent message — as nauseatingly populist and divisive as it is. You know the drill — the two Americas bit, which means that those who have realized the American dream must be punished. This message resonates with liberals. And since Edwards delivers it with flare, it mesmerizes a media thirsting for some pizzazz — and sanctuary from Kerry’s colorlessness. While Edwards doesn’t have much experience, he is everything Kerry’s not: energetic, exciting, dynamic and a communicator of a consistent, discernable message. But is it too late for Edwards? Well, under static rules of political analysis we would say yes, because Edwards has only won one primary and Kerry has won all but two. But Kerry hasn’t won them because he’s attractive to voters and Edwards hasn’t lost them because he isn’t. With the frenzy of the front-loaded primaries, Democratic voters have been driven by a mob mentality centered on Kerry’s presumed electability, and Kerry has been getting a free pass. But it appears the dynamics have changed and that voters are beginning to look under Kerry’s hood (in deference to Ross Perot I had to switch metaphors). If Edwards decides to take the gloves off and really challenge Kerry on his many expedient policy reversals and his lack of a compelling vision, and the media is willing to cooperate along these lines, momentum could shift in a hurry. I realize Edwards didn’t win in Wisconsin, but his last-minute surge could be quite significant, because unlike Iowa, where he just got Gephardt’s union voters in bulk, he wooed the Wisconsin voters with his message, delivery, and perceived empathy. Whether or not the media realizes it, Kerry’s aura of invincibility has been punctured. If Edwards has time to penetrate it further, the voters might just see that in Kerry there is just no “there” there. But I expect Kerry to avoid confrontation with Edwards like the plague — a wise choice on his part — which will require continued dissembling by Kerry, such as his recent insistence that his position and Edwards’ on NAFTA were identical, though Kerry voted for it and Edwards opposed it. Yet Kerry just scored a big labor endorsement. Go figure. The next few weeks should be interesting.