Wednesday, January 23, 2008

John Edwards, headless chicken

It was almost poignant, on Monday night, to hear John Edwards make the case for his autumn electability. He was the one who first suggested that John McCain would be the GOP nominee; then he said, "I grew up in the rural south, in small towns all across the rural south, and I think I can go everywhere and compete head-to-head with John McCain."

Dream on. Forgive my inelegant rural metaphor, but Edwards right now is like the headless chicken who keeps on moving even though it's already dead.

By saying this, I'm not rooting for him to leave the Democratic race. I'm merely offering the factual observation that his time as a first-tier national candidate has expired, probably forever.

Two reasons: He doesn't have the money to compete in the long run. And he's not going to win anything in the short run.

Regarding the latter, here's a handy statistic: 1-36. That's the John Edwards win-loss record since he first became a candidate in 2004. He has won a total of one primary (South Carolina, his native state, four years ago), and he has lost 36. His overall winning percentage (.028) is even lower than Howard Dean's '04 record.

And here's another statistic: 584-2827. The first number tallies all the delegates that Edwards won in 2004, plus those he has won thus far in 2008. The second number tallies all the delegates garnered by his rivals, then and now.

So what's the shelf life for a candidate who is not catching on? He lost as an upbeat candidate in 2004, he has lost as an angry candidate in 2008 (by successively wider margins), and it's hard to see how he can possibly reverse those numbers going forward...especially since the '08 results are precisely the opposite of Edwards' best laid plans.

The original plan was to win in Iowa (where he had virtually camped out since 2005), finish respectably in New Hampshire, win in Nevada (where the Edwards camp boasted of having "75 field staffers organizing support throughout the state"), and win in South Carolina, thereby catapulting Edwards into the coast-to-coast scrum on Feb. 5.
But he lost in Iowa, finished a distant third in New Hampshire, won only four percent of the delegates in Nevada and thereby got his "butt kicked" (those are his own words)...and now appears poised to finish third in South Carolina behind Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (or maybe it's forth, if Bill Clinton is counted).

Edwards' campaign spinners insist that he'll successfully target some of the big Feb. 5 states, with the help of his organized labor foot-soldiers (notably the Service Employes International Union), but, just two weeks ago, those same spinners were boasting that his labor union supporters (Carpenters, Steelworkers, Communications Workers) would boost his prospects in Nevada. The truth is, organized labor is often overrated as an electoral resource; four years ago, labor favorite Dick Gephardt didn't even make it out of Iowa.

Edwards remains an effective debater, making the case for anti-corporate populism, poking holes in his two opponents, goading them on the issues (he was the first to release a comprehensive health care plan), but voters already appear to have rendered an irreversible verdict. Either anti-corpotate populism itself doesn't sell (witness the thrice-defeated William Jennings Bryan, one century ago), or maybe it doesn't sell when it's pitched by a rich guy.

The Edwards camp, in its own Jan. 14 memo, prefers to blame his failures on "the national media," which has "anointed two celebrity candidates." Scapegoating "the media" is standard material for a losing candidate. I seem to recall that, on the Republican side, John McCain ascended this winter despite having been declared dead not long ago by "the media," and Mike Huckabee came out of nowhere despite being widely ignored by "the media." Voters often have a knack for making their own decisions, irrespective of press coverage.

Yes, Edwards has been overshadowed by the first major female candidate and the first major black candidate. But he also hasn't been able to escape his own thin resume. In debates he has been hard pressed to cite an enduring Senate achievement; indeed, just as often he has had to 'fess up about boneheaded Senate votes (authorizing war in Iraq, siding with Republicans and the credit card companies in a 2001 bankruptcy bill), to clam up about other embarrassments (supporting a nuclear waste dumping site in Nevada's Yucca Mountain), and defend his special interest allies (he's heavily backed by his fellow trial lawyers, who strongly oppose any law that would cap the damages awarded in lawsuits).

At this point, he's relevent in this race only as a foil to one opponent or the other: helping Obama in South Carolina by splitting the white voters with Hillary; and helping Hillary, on Feb. 5, by splitting the not-Hillary voters with Obama. The big question, going forward, is how long he will be satisfied with those arrangements.


By the way, and this is a topic for another day, it's worth questioning Edwards' Monday night assumption that John McCain has virtually clinched the GOP race. Have we not learned, in recent months, that assumptions are dangerous? McCain is strongest when national security dominates as an issue; economics are not his strength. And in recent days, in Florida (site of the next GOP showdown) and nationwide, the shaky economy has come to trump security/terrorism as the dominant citizen concern. Of all the major Republican contenders, Mitt Romney is most comfortable talking about economics and business. This trend bears watching.