I liked John Edwards when he ran for President in 2004. Everything that he has done in the intervening two years has caused me to like him even more. Yet, even as I wish him God speed, I'm wondering if John Edward's Achilles heel is not his peculiar relationship with the good citizens of North Carolina.
When I moved here and first became acquainted with Senator Edwards, he was in the first stages of a Presidential bid. What I saw play out during the Summer and Fall of 2003 was instructive. It was obvious that the voters of North Carolina were becoming restive. Back in 1998, voting for a Democrat to be Senator in the midst of the Clinton follies forced a conservative electorate to the very edge of where they wanted to be.
The thought that Edwards would simply throw overboard their tentative approval for an ill advised Presidential fling was more than they could stand. Even a distracted John Edwards came to appreciate his growing estrangement from the voters of North Carolina.
In time he realized that it would not be possible to rely on the good graces of the Tar Heel State to hold open his Senate seat even as he courted voters elsewhere. He conceded the obvious and cleared the way for Erskine Bowles who later paid a price for the scorned romance with Edwards.
I'm sure that Edwards struggled over that decision, yet it proved to be his liberation. Not long thereafter he took the guards off his Presidential campaign and his stump speech about the "Two Americas" became the hottest thing on the Presidential campaign trail.
People started to take notice, the crowds swelled, and his improbable quest for the Presidency bloomed over night. Of course, eventually he lost his race for the nomination, but it wasn't because he ran out of potential, it was because he ran out of time. Many experts believed that if Edwards could have had just one more month before the primaries started, the race would have been his.
I think they were right.
Likewise, some political commentators back in North Carolina suggested that John Edwards unexpected success had won him back his popularity in the Old North State. They claimed that the voters early skepticism about his maturity and judgment now melted on the warmth of his national popularity. The voters of North Carolina were proud of him and he had a place in their hearts once more.
As pleasant as this scenario sounds, it contradicts the fact that the Kerry-Edwards ticket failed to carry North Carolina in the general election. In Edward's home State the victory of George W. Bush was decisive. The Republican ticket carried 56% of the vote. In his own Moore County, the place about which his stump speech waxed so eloquent, hearkening back to a time when his father had worked in a textile mill, and the very place where he had announced his run for the Presidency... there the Bush ticket won with 65% of the vote.
In short, it was a crushing defeat.
Even though this repudiation must have been painful, today Edwards continues to benefit by his freedom from North Carolina politics. Unfettered by what his former constituents expect, he’s now moved away from the platitudes of his 2004 stump speech. He has developed concrete proposals to move the conversation forward, even if those proposals invite criticism.
The old sense of moderation is now gone. In its place is a bold proposal for universal health care, the same third rail on which Hillary Clinton nearly shorted out her husband's political career. He embraces an aggressive posture on raising the minimum wage, humane bankruptcy protection and support for stronger unions.
He is doing what no President since Lyndon Johnson has had either the courage, or the recklessness to do. He is putting the issue of American poverty front and center.
Instead of the smiling civility of old he now speaks of Bush administration policies as a "convergence of stupidity." And finally, as if to expiate the sin of casting his Senate vote to authorize the war, Edwards now demands the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq - the most unambiguous stand of any serious Presidential candidate.
Anyone who has paid attention knows that his approach has helped him. According to a recent Harstad Poll, voters in Iowa rank their favorite Democratic Presidential candidates in this order...
* John Edwards 36%
* Hillary Clinton 16%
* Barack Obama 13%
* Tom Vilsack 11%
And this support isn't just confined to Iowa. Quinnipiac University recently conducted a national poll asking Americans to rate their warmth of feeling toward each of the Presidential candidates and only Obama ranked higher.
All of this is to the good.
Yet there is still one critical piece of the puzzle unaccounted for, and it's something crucial to John Edward's Presidential hopes. His ace in the hole is the expectation that he could carry his own Southern State, and maybe a few other Southern States besides.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to confirm that expectation. Two years ago John Edwards represented a ticket that was too liberal to be popular in his own home State. Since then Edwards has moved to the left with absolutely no evidence that North Carolina, or any Southern State, has moved along with him.
If in fact the South has not moved, then it's fair to assume that the gulf which separated the Democrats from Southern success in 2004 will only be wider if Edwards is the standard bearer in 2008.
Even should Edwards blow through Iowa, still, somewhere down the pike he'll be expected to show the goods in his own region. If polls taken among all Southern voters, and not just Democrats, demonstrate that he can't be competitive below the Mason-Dixon Line, then his case for the nomination becomes much less compelling.
The ultimate irony for John Edwards may be that everything he's done to make himself popular everywhere else, except in the South, might be the ultimate cause of his own undoing. As if scripted by William Faulkner himself, John Edwards might have tried to run from that old textile mill now standing dark and empty in North Carolina, but he just can't hide.