Sunday, March 05, 2006

Mea culpa politicking

John Edwards (remember him? Democratic veep candidate with the Bobby Kennedy forelock?) was on Meet the Press today, talking about his 2002 Senate vote authorizing President Bush to wage war in Iraq. See if you can spot the key word:
"I don't think I was the only one who was wrong...It was wrong...the vote was wrong and my judgement was wrong...saying that my vote was wrong is the truth...I was wrong...I was wrong, absolutely."
That's seven renditions of the W-word, all within roughly 60 seconds, and here's what it means: Edwards wants to run for president in 2008.
I'm not suggesting that Edwards doesn't sincerely regret his '02 vote and that his regrets are not substantive. But it just so happens that there will be a niche in the '08 Democratic primaries for a candidate who does a mea culpa on the war. Liberal antiwar voters want the party's pro-war senators of 2002 to show some contrition before the primaries commence. So Edwards is doing it. John Kerry actually did it before Edwards did, swapping his former Hamlet countenance for eating crow.
There has been so anxiety in Democratic circles about doing the mea culpa; as I wrote in a piece last autumn, some Democrats think that a confession of error would be tantamount to saying that they were easily duped by Bush, and therefore would be perceived as too naive for the top job. They also recall what happened in 1967 to Republican candidate George Romney, who said he'd been "brainwashed" by the military brass while visiting Vietnam, a gaffe that dashed his bid.
Nevertheless, doing the mea culpa will be good politics for any Democratic candidate who wants to harvest votes on the left during the primary season. After all, the first stop in '08 is Iowa, where antiwar liberals can be expected to vote heavily.
And maybe 'fessing up will also be spun as a character issue. Edwards took that route today, arguing that "the foundation for moral leadership is the truth." He's touting the message that admitting a wrong is an attractive contrast to a president who generally insists that he's always right.
Whether that, and an anti-poverty agenda, is enough to establish Edwards as the prime alternative to Hillary Clinton (who has yet to do the mea culpa) is another story.