Tuesday, January 1, 2008

First Person Accounts--of John Edwards

This is my third post in a series on the Democratic Candidates I have seen speak in person. The first article was on Biden and the second was on Richardson.

Going back to 2004, I've seen John Edwards speak in person four times. In this cycle, I saw him with about 200 other excited people in a college cafeteria in Council Bluffs last summer. Then, in October I went out in the country near our small town of Wallaceville to attend his event set up in a barn. On the way out, I came across two cars of journalists that were stuck in the mud on a low-maintenance road that Tom-Tom had hilariously directed them to take. The fact that it was muddy and marked "B Maintenance" hadn't stopped them. I rolled down the window and asked if they were taking a short cut. I then asked if they needed help. The one woman among them said "no thanks" a farmer with a tractor was already on his way.

I arrived late to the rally and Edwards was being introduced. The crowd of about 40 people were sitting on hay bales. Edwards was standing in front of a wall adorned with all types of farm implements. A small Massey-Ferguson tractor was parked over in the far corner. And about 25 members of the press and their cameras were in the back. A few of their number were missing.

Edwards was magnificent. He is clearly the best speaker of all the candidates. And he serves up heapin' helpings of all the red meat issues that feed the liberal appetite. When I saw him back in July, this surprised me. Now, his new fighting attitude is familiar to anyone around the country who has been paying attention. He jabs his finger at the air like he is poking the big guys in the chest and says, "The system is rigged." and "They are corrupt." and "The oil companies and the big insurance companies aren't just going to give us what we want, we're going to have to fight them for it, and I've been fighting them all my life." You know how it goes.

(find out what happened to the muddy reporters on the flip-side)

This was were I first heard an Edwards phrase I have stolen for my own use on various occasions since. While summarizing the problems of the No Child Left Behind battery of tests, he said "You don't make a hog fatter by weighing it." I know it's not an air tight argument, but it's goooood.

Every time I have heard Edwards speak, I've thought, I agree with him on almost every issue. I like his strength and fight. I think that most Democrats would agree. But this nomination doesn't seem to turn on the issues. For most people's taste, the leading candidates are close enough on the issues that it comes down to electability, likability, experience, competence, or some particular constellation of qualities that are most important to you.

I think that this is why Edwards' support has not dropped in Iowa below the 22-25% that he has polled throughout the fall and winter. His people are solid. He has a good organization. And he has worked the rural areas thoroughly, ready to take advantage of the higher proportion of delegates given to smaller precincts.

But there are some things about Edwards that I find disconcerting. His hard-edged populist message is unlikely to play well with people outside the democratic party. He has handicapped himself for the general election by taking matching funds. And for us here in Iowa who have seen him over and on commercials (I swear to you there is one playing on the TV behind me right as I type this sentence), he is relying on the same rhetorical emphases over and over. I'm tired of his passionate voice. And he seems to be suffering from some type of stroke that narrows his right eye and turns his mouth to one side. Then there's the shaking the head with the eyes closed briefly, a gesture denoting sincerity.

People often refer to him as 'slick', not really knowing just what it is about him that they don't like. They say he's too perfect. Is that really a problem? Or do people dislike him for other reasons and pick on him for his best qualities. He is so good that he seems like an actor playing politician. In fact, he looks more like and actor than he does a self-made populist. But the thing about actors is that their lines are written down and memorized (pretty much like a politician on the hustings). Poor actors recite lines in a flat, emotionless tone--that's Hillary Clinton. The average ones are smooth and passionate, but you have no real sense that they are responding to the moment. The emotion seems conjured up, somehow. This is how Edwards can sound. The very best actors typically pause and stumble here and there. You have a sense that they are reaching for the right word and thinking through that moment right then. You experience it along with them. Marlon Brando refused to completely memorize his lines so that he would have just that effect. Barack Obama isn't quite in that league; but I think he is more effective at it than Edwards.

Halfway through Edwards' presentation in the barn, the muddy journalist stumbled in. They were young and confident and well-dressed. I tried to make eye contact as they went by. Nothing. Afterward, I tried again. They where right to avoid me because I was absolutely going to tease them. Instead I began formulating theories in my head about arrogant easterners and out-of-touch journalists.

My prediction is that Edwards will do well in Iowa. He is going to be viable in many rural areas where one of the other front runners aren't. His people will show up. But I don't think that he has any good surprises coming. People know him already. In 2004 he had freshness on his side. Now, we're a little tired of him. He's going to do well enough to stick around for a while. And he's going to stick around because he doesn't really have any job to get back to.

(Final note: Edwards' commercial has run two more times while I finished typing and proof-reading.)