Edwards Stumbles Out of the Gate

Campaigns are a lot like relationships:  You usually know why they will fail from the outset.  With John Kerry it was his inability to articulate a clear vision of what a Kerry presidency would look like.  With Al Gore it was his proclivity for exaggeration.  With Bob Dole it was his inability to appear as something other than a 72-year-old senator who had served in Congress for over 30 years.  But whatever the problem is, it usually is obvious from the early primaries. This time around, some candidates are melting down before the heat is on.

It therefore does not bode well for the candidacy of Johnny Reid Edwards that the most prevalent characteristic of his campaign to date has been its utter incompetence.  This is surprising, as Edwards is a fairly experienced campaigner, having defeated a Republican incumbent in a red state in 1998, and having run a workmanlike primary campaign for President and a national campaign for vice president in 2004.  It is also bad news for Democrats, as Edwards probably has the greatest opportunity among their front-runners to transcend the red-state-blue-state divide that has characterized our nation’s politics for the past two election cycles.

The problems with his campaign have been present literally from the start.  Edwards had planned to announce his candidacy in New Orleans on December 28, 2006.  He had presumably hoped to have the news cycle to himself in the lull between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  This, however, displayed something of a tin ear, as the reason that there is usually a news lull that week is that people are either spending time with their families or are on the road; they certainly aren’t discussing the presidential campaign. 

But whatever advantage Edwards hoped to claim from this early announcement, he did not get it.  In fairness, it could not be helped that the day he chose to announce arrived two days after President Gerald Ford died.  Nor could he help that his announcement came two days before Saddam Hussein was executed, and was completely overshadowed with the run-up to that event.  What could be helped, though, was that his website leaked the announcement a day early.  This was another sign of problems to come.

In late January, Edwards angered the resurgent left wing of his party by seeming to embrace a hardline stance toward Iran.  Said Edwards at a security conference in Israel:  "To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep all options on the table.  Let me reiterate — all options must remain on the table."  This caused a mini-dustup in the left-leaning blogosphere, while the old print journal The Nation sniffed: "Preventing a war with Iran is as important as getting out of Iraq to many in the peace movement. Indeed, those goals are now intertwined. Edwards can’t have it both ways."

He then suffered yet another spate of bad press when it was revealed that he and his family had moved into a 28,000 square-foot house (no, I didn’t accidentally type an extra zero there).  This house is the most valuable property in upscale Orange County, North Carolina, and contains a swimming pool, a basketball court, a squash court, a stage, and a room known as "John’s Lounge."  Now, no one believes that a Democratic Presidential candidate is expected to take a vow of poverty when he runs for office.  But John Edwards is running a populist campaign based on wealth redistribution to narrow the gap between the supposed "Two Americas."  Pushing that theme while moving into a house that is ten times the size of a house most Americans would consider opulent brings with it more than a faint whiff of phoniness.

Most recently, Edwards suffered from the well-publicized dust-up over the hiring of two feminist bloggers, one of whom had opposed the war in Afghanistan, vociferously supported Durham DA Mike Nifong’s prosecution of three Duke Lacrosse players accused of sexual assault, and penned comments about Roman Catholics’attitudes on birth control that news media charitably described as "controversial" (in reality, the comments — which involved the Virgin Mary, the "Plan B" contraceptive, and a graphic description of the Holy Spirit — were so crude that I doubt HUMAN EVENTS would let me transcribe them here).  While the impact these two bloggers will have on the course of the campaign is probably overstated, the fact that they were hired in the first place raises serious questions about the mechanics of the campaign.  Either the bloggers were not vetted, which would be a huge display of the campaign’s incompetence, or they were vetted and hired anyway, which would be worse.

The result has been a campaign that has been off-message since its inception.  And this has begun to affect the campaign in the polls.  An early January Rasmussen Reports poll had Edwards winning 15% of Democratic primary voters to Clinton’s 22% and Obama’s 21%.  By the end of the month he was down to 10%, while Clinton had surged to 34% (Obama was at 18%).  The results in key primary states mirror this movement.  A mid-January Zogby poll showed Edwards leading Clinton by nine points; by mid-February the two were tied (Obama had not moved).  In New Hampshire, Zogby polls of the same dates show a six-point decline in Edwards’s support, while Clinton has been surging (Obama again has not moved).  This is not the type of movement Edwards wanted to see.

Like relationships, campaigns have their ups and downs.  Relationships that have early stumbles can be righted — my wife and I took a three-month break after our first month of dating — but those are the exception rather than the rule.  It is a long 11 months until the first Democratic primary, but if the Edwards campaign does not get its act together soon, it may not make it past Iowa.