Friday, March 23, 2007

Illness as a campaign asset (not!)

It seems almost callous to offer instant speculation about how Elizabeth Edwards’ recurrent cancer might affect her husband’s presidential campaign. Watching their press conference yesterday, my initial impulse was to put aside politics and empathize. But since they have decided to stay in the race, we scribes have no choice but to do our jobs.

For John Edwards – currently trailing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama among Democrats nationally, but very popular among Democrats in crucial Iowa - the sobering news about his spouse could cut either of two ways.

Here’s the thumbs-up scenario: His determination to soldier on as a candidate, while coping gracefully with family tragedy, adds gravitas to his image. Those who routinely dismiss him as a nice-looking lightweight, or as merely a rich trial lawyer, might be compelled to reassess him.

Indeed, Edwards is encouraging this line of thinking; at his press conference, he depicted Elizabeth’s illness as precisely the kind of test that our national leaders are typically forced to confront – his own personal 9/11, as it were. He said: “The maturity and the judgment that’s required of the president, especially in these historic times, requires the president to be able to function and focus under very difficult circumstances.” And Elizabeth weighed in yesterday as well: “He has an unbelievable toughness, a reserve that allows him to push forward with what needs to happen.”

Some observers buy this scenario; talking yesterday to the Associated Press, Democratic operative Chris Lehane (Al Gore’s press spokesman in the 2000 campaign) said: “These are situations where voters extrapolate an awful lot about a person’s character. Those who have questioned whether Edwards had the toughness to be president could well draw a lesson from how he handles this situation.”

Also, under the thumbs-up scenario, voters will presumably embrace Edwards politically because they are rooting for him personally. In an Oprah world, few sagas are more compelling than the triumph over adversity; not to be glib, but the Edwards personal saga might well demonstrate that politicians are people, too. As southern Democratic strategist Dane Strother argued yesterday, the news about Elizabeth “makes him real. It makes her real.”

But consider the thumbs-down scenario:

For John Edwards, the illness injects an element of uncertainty into his campaign. And that’s not a plus, because the last thing he needs right now – during this crucial phase, when activists are trying to decide who to work for, when donors are trying to decide where to send money – is the perception that he might not go the distance.

On the fund-raising front, Edwards is already lagging behind Clinton and Obama; it’s hard to see how the news about his spouse will help him close the gap. Democratic donors will undoubtedly sympathize with his personal challenges, but that won’t prevent them from making cold-eyed assessments about their own money. And given the front-loaded primary schedule, clustered around a slew of major states voting on Feb. 5, a candidate probably can’t survive without first having raised a great deal of money.

It’s easy to imagine that a fair number of donors will now hesitate before investing in Edwards; even if he stays in the race, he might well be (understandably) distracted by his wife’s medical travails…Edwards even acknowledged yesterday that he is fully prepared to leave the campaign trail whenever necessary: “Any place I need to be with Elizabeth, I will be there – period.”

But the donors, while crucial at this stage of the race, are relatively small in number. Let’s consider, in particular, the reaction of women who are most likely to vote in Democratic primaries. Here I am speculating, but it would not surprise me if a fair number of these voters think less of Edwards in the wake of his wife’s news. Why? Because of his decision to stay in the race and pursue his political ambitions, rather than devote himself full time to his wife and his kids (ages eight and six).

I have no instant polling stats; this is just what some women are telling me. Also, some female bloggers today are saying the same thing (“I have to wonder at the self-centered perspective whereby a presidential candidate is convinced that he and he alone is the man of the hour, and that our country's destiny is so dependent on him that his family's needs would not take precedence at such a time as this”). And columnist Margaret Carlson, after sampling some female opinion, writes today, “The women still love (Elizabeth), not so much him…They wanted Edwards to act more like Edward VIII, who renounced the throne of England for Wallis Simpson, to say, over his wife’s objection, that he’s giving this up ‘for the woman I love.’”

On balance, I give the edge to the thumbs-down scenario. But there’s one silver lining for Edwards. His habitual attackers will feel compelled to observe a brief moratorium; at least for a few days, it will be deemed bad form to deride him as a “Breck girl” or a “faggot.”


In the most substantive pushback against President Bush since the war in Iraq was launched, the Democratic House today passed its bill to establish a troop withdrawal timeline, to compel the governing Iraqis to finally shape up, and to set some readiness standards for the overextended U.S. military. Bush indicated that he will veto it; the Democrats lack the votes to override him. So this bill will not become law.

But, for Democrats, it signals that they intend to keep the pressure on, as a bow to the popular mandate they received last November. They may lose on this legislation, but they clearly have the momentum, and majority support from the electorate. It is hard to see how the Republicans can keep insisting that it's the Democrats who are pushing "a prescription for failure," when it is incontrovertible fact that the Bush war team, with Republican acquiesence, has already spent four years laying the groundwork for failure.

Case in point: a new report released yesterday by the nonpartisan General Accountability Office. It now turns out, according to the GAO, that we made it easy for the insurgents to obtain millions of tons of conventional munitions - because we had too few soldiers guarding the material. The report says that the looting of these enemy munitions by the insurgents was directly attributable to the Bush team's flawed postwar planning. The Bush team underestimated how many troops it would need to secure Iraq, says the GAO, and it didn't anticipate that a program to guard these munitions would even be necessary.

As the GAO put it, in government bureaucratese, "the widespread looting occurred because DOD (Department of Defense) had insufficient troop levels to secure conventional munitions storage sites due to several OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) planning priorities and assumptions...(T)he war plan did not document risk mitigation strategies in case assumptions were proven wrong."

Result: the munitions were used to make the roadside bombs that have killed American soldiers.

Conclusion: The GAO is saying, in so many words, that the Bush team had a "prescription for failure" from the very beginning.