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Why Obama (might Have) Alienated Elizabeth Edwards

Did Barack Obama fail to close the deal with John Edwards by seeming arrogant and insufficiently committed to his policy agenda? New York magazine's John Heilemann seems to imply as much in a much-discussed article that appeared on Friday. My colleague Noam Scheiber respectfully disagrees.

Noam has better sources within the campaigns than I do (as, I presume, does Heilemann). So I'm really in no position to say who's right on the overall issue. But I can add a data point to validate at least one detail in Heilemann's story.

In his article, Heilemann says that Obama alienated Elizabeth Edwards over a discussion of health care policy. Here's the full passage: 

Obama blew it. Speaking to Edwards on the day he exited the race, Obama came across as glib and aloof. His response to Edwards’s imprecations that he make poverty a central part of his agenda was shallow, perfunctory, pat. Clinton, by contrast, engaged Edwards in a lengthy policy discussion. Her affect was solicitous and respectful. When Clinton met Edwards face-to-face in North Carolina ten days later, her approach continued to impress; she even made headway with Elizabeth. Whereas in his Edwards sit-down, Obama dug himself in deeper, getting into a fight with Elizabeth about health care, insisting that his plan is universal (a position she considers a crock), high-handedly criticizing Clinton’s plan (and by extension Edwards’s) for its insurance mandate.

Heilemann attributes this anecdote to "a Democratic strategist unaligned with any campaign but with knowledge of the situation gleaned from all three camps." It is important to treat such stories with a little skepticism--not because Heilemann is in any way untrustworthy (I like his stuff a lot, as a matter of fact), but because these sort of second-hand accounts aren't always that reliable, particularly when they involve poilcy discussions.

Still, the idea that Elizabeth Edwards would get into a heated discussion with Obama over health care policy rings true. She is a well-known health care wonk. Just this weekend, as a matter of fact, she gave the keynote address at this year's annual conference for the Association of Health Care Journalists--in which she offered a blistering, dead-on critique of John McCain's health care plan.

During the campaign, Elizabeth had played a key role in shaping her husband's health care policy. She lobbied hard for a single-payer plan, according to my sources. And when that didn't fly, she pressed for the most comprehensive plan possible. That's one reason the official Edwards plan--like the one Clinton eventually endorsed--included a requirement that everybody obtain insurance. 

So it makes sense that Elizabeth would consider Obama's arguments--that mandates for everybody aren't essential right away--a "crock." And given her passion for the subject, it also seems plausible that she'd make a big deal out of it.

Edit: Cleaned up some lousy prose from the original. 

--Jonathan Cohn