Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is taking a page from Bill Clinton’s playbook and building on it. He feels your pain — and your anger.
The upbeat Mr. Sunshine and Southern moderate of the 2004 presidential race has turned into the populist pursuing support from the party’s liberal wing in hopes of overcoming leading rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. Edwards has given voice to voters’ frustrations over an unending Iraq war, rising health care costs and disenchantment with Washington.
Anger can be a tricky emotion for a politician. In 2004, Howard Dean was known as the angry candidate and it proved to be part of his downfall.
“The electorate gets to be angry, but politicians typically should be more temperate,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, who added that “there’s a fine line between channeling anger and being angry.”
Edwards is different from Dean, who had a tendency to get ticked off at times and pop off unexpectedly. Edwards is channeling his emotion in a more deliberate way.
Still, Edwards’ impassioned outbursts also can backfire, especially when his own past words and deeds come back to haunt him.
In Tuesday’s AFL-CIO debate, Edwards’ voice rose as he pledged his solidarity with union workers, citing the 200 times he walked picket lines in the last two years and being with rank-and-file at “crunch time.”
“That’s the question you have to ask yourself. Who will stand with you when it really matters?” he asked.
Rival Joe Biden testily suggested Edwards was a Johnny-come-lately, who only embraced labor’s cause recently for the political expediency of the presidential race.
“The question is, did you walk when it cost? Did you walk when you were from a state that is not a labor state?” Biden asked.
To make its point, the Biden campaign distributed a list of news stories from 1998, when Edwards ran for the Senate, showing that he supported a North Carolina law that prevented workers from being forced to join a union — an anti-union position.
Last week, Edwards was vociferous in demanding that Clinton and other rivals refuse contributions from News Corp., owner of Fox News, which he labeled as biased against Democrats. A day later, News Corp. pointed out that Edwards has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars for a book published by the corporation’s HarperCollins.
Faced with this reality, Edwards lashed back.
“They can continue to attack,” the candidate snapped on CNN’s “The Situation Room.” “They will not silence me.”
Edwards had a similarly intense response when campaigning in Iowa in late July. “I’m out there speaking up for universal health care, ending this war in Iraq, speaking up for the poor. They want to shut me up,” he said without specifying who “they” are. “They will never silence me. Never.”
In a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press, Edwards said he tries to express his outrage while offering solutions. “I am by nature optimistic,” he said.
Edwards’ solutions have come in more detailed and left-leaning policy proposals than his rivals. He was the first to offer a universal health care plan, and early on he called on Congress to vote against funding the war until troops come home.
“He’s definitely leading and prodding the other Democratic candidates on a whole variety of issues,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future. “He really has been the candidate who has been out front, and all of the other candidates are trying to imitate it in one way or another and steal his constituency.”
In a recent interview, Edwards said his outrage came into focus last month when he went on a three-day tour focused on poverty in the United States. As he frequently tells voters, he met a man named James Lowe who had lived for 50 years with a cleft pallet, unable to talk because he did not have health insurance and couldn’t afford the simple operation to repair it.
“It made me mad,” Edwards told an audience in South Carolina recently. “I mean, I was outraged. I think all of us should be outraged. This is just one of just millions of stories that I could feel inside of me. Enough is enough!”
Joe Trippi, who ran Dean’s campaign and now is a senior adviser to Edwards, said anger may not have worked for his old boss but that Edwards is a different candidate running in a different time.
“Right now I think there are a lot of people who are really like John Edwards who believe Washington is really broken,” Trippi said in a telephone interview. “It’s not about whether you are angry or not, it’s about are you expressing in an appropriate way when the rest of the country says, ‘Yeah, I’m outraged about that, too.’”
On the Net:
John Edwards campaign: http://www.johnedwards.com