With John Edwards' withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race today, it is indeed appropriate to give him some much-earned props. I couldn't agree more with Jonathan Cohn's assessment of Edwards' policy proposals and their impact. Indeed, I'd go further: His bold and imaginative health-care plan headed off what appeared to be an irresistible stampede of progressives towards a single-payer system as the only alterative to a timid, confusing, incremental approach. And let's remember that Edwards' effort to inject economic inequality and poverty into the debate began in 2004, and never flagged for a moment since then.
But while Jonathan generously suggests this is why Edwards really "won" on a conceptual level and among policy wonks, any honest assessment of his campaign has to consider why he actually lost in reality, and among voters. Any fact-based evaluation of the Edwards campaign has to deal with a couple of realities:
- His message was a remarkably faithful and wholesale adoption of the Crashing the Gates-style netroots analysis of the parties, of Washington, of the Clintonian Democratic tradition, and of galvanizing value of "fighting populist" rhetoric. It was crafted with the help of the maestro of this approach, Joe Trippi. Yet it did not rouse much in the way of support from its intended audiences. In the end, most of the Deanian excitement in the campaign flowed to Obama, who consistently deployed a rhetoric of post-partisanship that is anathema to the point of view advanced by Edwards, as Edwards himself suggested on many occasions. It's telling that Edwards lost his critical contest, Iowa, where he had every advantage at the beginning, after hoping for a low turnout dominated by older voters and previous caucus participants.
- While no one will ever know how Edwards would have fared had he won Iowa, his campaign ultimately appealed to the same kind of voters he won in 2004 with a very different message: moderate-to-conservative white men. His exceptional weakness among African-Americans, in 2008 as in 2004, provides a cautionary tale about the breadth of appeal of "populism."
Having said all that, Edwards is obviously a very talented person who could be of great value to any Democratic administration. But his political strategy just wasn't as good as his policies or his own personal abilities. And the failure of his candidacy should make progressives spend some time considering whether the "fighting partisan populist" perspectives on how to expand and mobilize the Democratic base are now as outdated as the conventional wisdom they replaced.