Thursday, June 28, 2007

Why John and Elizabeth zapped the pundette

It may be sheer happenstance, but over the past five days the John and Elizabeth Edwards tag team has been far more conspicuous than usual.

OK, forget the happenstance. These spouses know exactly what they’re doing, and why. They're running a campaign that needs a boost, especially on the financial side.

Elizabeth, wife of the number-three Democratic presidential candidate, made news on Sunday when she publicly declared in San Francisco that she – unlike her husband – has no problem with the concept of gay married people; “I don’t know why someone else’s marriage has anything to do with me. I’m completely comfortable with gay marriage.” A day later, John and Elizabeth trekked to NBC and sat on Jay Leno’s couch, where John defended his wife: “There’s this strange thing about Elizabeth – she actually says what she thinks. And whatever it is, is whatever it is.” (Maybe she just blurted out her stance on gay marriage in a moment of spontaneous candor; on the other hand, it conveniently signaled liberal gay donors that a gay marriage supporter had the candidate’s ear.)

Then, on Tuesday, Elizabeth decided to return the favor by defending her husband. Dialing into Chris Matthews’ show on MSNBC, she picked a fight with Ann Coulter, the poisonous pundette, who was on the set, decked out in her requisite cocktail-party finery. Elizabeth proceeded to scold Coulter (or tried to, anyway) for the latter’s track record of insults – calling John a “faggot,” for instance, and joking about the couple’s deceased teenage son.

So that was Tuesday. On Wednesday, John returned the favor, appearing on Chris Matthew’s show, and defending his wife for defending him: “I applaud Elizabeth. When people like Ann Coulter…engage in this kind of hate-mongering, you have to stand up to it.” He reiterated the point in a talk with ABC, saying that he was “very proud” of Elizabeth.

So that was Wednesday. Earlier today, Elizabeth resurfaced on NBC and defended her husband all over again, by condemning Coulter for her “name-calling about John…John’s political campaign has been based on real ideas and substance.” Also today, the Des Moines Register (the home newspaper Iowa caucus participants) ran a story about Elizabeth, who had chatted by phone with the paper on Wednesday; she told the reporter, “At some point, somebody has to stand up and say, ‘That’s enough’” – thereby hitting the same talking point that John had invoked on MSNBC Wednesday, when he had defended her for defending him.

I have no doubt that the Edwards spouses feel strongly about Coulter, a master publicist for the politics of insult. But, in a sense, they need her right now; politically, she serves two useful purposes. By assailing her as a dangerous enemy, the Edwards campaign can potentially raise a lot of money from incensed liberal voters – and what better time to contribute than right now, with the ’07 second-quarter fundraising deadline just two days away, and with all reports indicating that Edwards will raise a pittance, at least when compared to the expected hauls for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? (Politically speaking, their targeting of Coulter is roughly akin to the GOP fundraising practice of scaring its base with dark invocations of Ted Kennedy, Michael Moore, or the Clintons.)

Indeed, by staying in the news cycle for days on end with their Coulter condemnations, the Edwards tag team has managed to shift public attention away from the two Democratic frontrunners as the second-quarter money clock winds down. The hope, apparently, is that this publicity blitz can enable the Edwards campaign to at least narrow that fundraising gap. And the campaign sees no downside in keeping Elizabeth front and center; she is a crossover figure who attracts liberals and feminists (in part because she’s an independent-minded career attorney), as well as traditional women who like the fact that she talks freely about her health and personal tragedies.

Timing is everything in politics, and Elizabeth appeared to be playing innocent this morning when she was asked on NBC whether it was sheer happenstance that her targeting of Coulter had occurred at such a crucial moment in the fundraising calendar. She replied, “I had no idea when she was going to…get back on the air again…It just happened to be at the end of the quarter.” She omitted the fact that, after Coulter called her husband a “faggot” last winter, the Edwards camp posted the slur in a video that helped raise $300,000 – all of which just happened to be timed for the end of the first fundraising quarter.

John Edwards was less coy about the whole Coulter deal. When Matthews asked him late yesterday whether it was right to both “attack her and exploit her, he basically replied, Heck, yeah: “If we ask Americans…to join us in standing up and being strong, there’s nothing wrong with that…We are raising money. I don’t know the numbers. I hope they go up.”

And by talking so much about how he and Elizabeth are determined to fight back against the “hate-mongers,” he was also trying to remind liberal donors and primary voters that the Clintons aren’t the only pugilistic marriage partners in the Democratic race. It’s unclear, however, whether he can ultimately convince those voters that the Edwards tag team is Bill and Hillary without the baggage. The odds remain strong that, by next February, John and Elizabeth will be lauding each other in defeat…while Ann Coulter, forever impervious to assault, is tossing her tresses.